A still from 'Nightmare Cinema'.
July 5, 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.

Boar

2017 / Australia / 96 min. / Dir. by Chris Sun / Premiered online on June 6, 2019

Occasionally entertaining but unremittingly slipshod, writer-director Chris Sun’s Down Under creature feature Boar at least has the decency to deliver on its trashy drive-in premise. There is, in fact, a giant goddamn boar in it that kills a lot of people quite gruesomely. The problem isn’t the titular feral swine – realized via delightfully grotesque physical modeling and puppetry, combined with atrocious CGI in wide shots – but the film in which it wallows. The dusty locations and too-sprawling ensemble of outback expendables do a respectable job of conjuring a lived-in, fly-specked Oz-ploitation vibe, underlined by the presence of Aussie genre icons like John Jarratt and Nathan Jones. However, the film’s narrative is appallingly thin, bleary, and shapeless. One half-baked scene of dreadful dialogue lurches into the next, and Sun seems perpetually uncertain as to who the main characters are and where the audience’s attention should be focused. It is, quite simply, an exasperating mess, unredeemed even by the grindhouse thrill of copious gorings and disembowelments.  Rating: D+ [Now available to stream on Shudder.]

Nightmare Cinema

2018 / USA / 119 min. / Dir. by Mick Garris, Alejandro Brugués, Joe Dante, Ryûhei Kitamura, and David Slade / Premiered online on June 21, 2019

Like most horror-anthology features, Nightmare Cinema – the brainchild of Masters of Horror (2005-07) creator and longtime genre journeyman Mick Garris – is a frustratingly mixed bag. The Garris-directed frame story, concerning an infernal film projectionist played by Mickey Rourke, never amounts to anything, and three of the five chapters range from pointless-if-amusing schlock (Joe Dante’s segment) to drowsy hackwork (Garris’) to hot, steaming garbage (Ryûhei Kitamura’s). Fortunately, the chapters by Alejandro Brugués (Juan of the Dead) and David Slade (30 Days of Night) manage to (barely) salvage the project. Brugués’ amusingly disgusting “The Thing in the Woods” begins in medias res with a classic slasher-movie scenario, but then turns it on its head with a left-field shift in sub-genre and audience identification. Meanwhile, Slade’s segment, “This Way to Egress,” is the standout: a surreal, black-and-white descent into literal nightmare, in which a confused woman (Elizabeth Reaser) navigates a Kafka- and Jacob’s Ladder-tinged limbo of filthy corridors, uncaring functionaries, and disturbing mutations. Rating: C- [Now available to stream on Hoopla and to rent or purchase from Amazon and Fandango.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Lost Highway'.
July 3, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

In David Lynch's Tangled Nightmare, Reality Itself Is a Schrödinger's Paradox

1997 / USA, France / 134 min. / Dir. by David Lynch / Opened in select U.S. cities on Feb. 21, 1997

David Lynch is an auteur, so he has every right to tell you not to buy Kino Lorber’s new edition of his film Lost Highway (1997), which arrived for the first time on Blu-ray in the U.S. on June 25. As one of the most singular filmmakers in the history of the medium, it’s reasonable for Lynch to have complete control over his filmography. Just days before Lost Highway was set to be released, Lynch tweeted, “A Blu-ray of LOST HIGHWAY will be released very soon. It was made from old elements and NOT from a restoration of the original negative.” He went on to express hope for a different restoration in the near future, which many interpreted as a hint at an upcoming version from the Criterion Collection. The boutique home-video label has already produced lavish editions of Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), and Mulholland Drive (2001), as well as a documentary about the director’s creative process, David Lynch: The Art Life (2016).

Kino Lorber was quick to respond to the Lynch’s tweet, claiming, “We reached out to Mr. Lynch via email to oversee and color grade a new 4K transfer (from the original camera negative) and get his approval on the dozen or so extras we had planned to include.” The company went on to explain that Lynch was disinterested in collaborating, and they had no choice but to carry on with their release using the current Universal master. This contention between filmmaker and distributor underlines the insoluble debate over the true ownership of art. Lynch, who spent five years perfecting his debut feature, Eraserhead, and includes instructions on how to calibrate one’s TV for optimum viewing experience with the film’s Criterion edition, is naturally going to be very particular about how his films look on home video. Kino Lorber, which seeks to release historically significant arthouse films from around the world, is obviously interested in bringing Lost Highway to a wider audience. Neither side of this dispute is necessarily in the wrong.

The notion that there are two sides to every story is especially prominent in Lost Highway. Early on, jazz saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullman) tells the police and his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette), that he hates video cameras because he “likes to remember things his own way.” When asked what he means by that, he replies, “How I remembered them. Not necessarily the way they happened.” Fred’s suggestion — that two aspects of the same thing can both be perceived as the truth — is key to interpreting what is easily Lynch’s most horrific and enveloping film since his debut. Fred’s opinions on the duality of daily life and how technology can distort that reality are revealed after a series of increasingly unsettling VHS tapes arrives on the couple’s front porch. The footage on these tapes, which begins outside their home and slowly moves into their bedroom, where they are shown sleeping, eat away at Fred and eventually push him commit an unthinkable crime. A terrifying exchange between Fred and a Mystery Man (Robert Blake) certainly doesn’t help his deteriorating mind.

Fred eventually finds himself on death row, and here the story shifts from suggesting the coexistence of dreams and nightmares to a full-on embrace of heaven-and-hell-on-Earth. This is where Lost Highway proves to be a proto-Mulholland Drive: Fred’s splitting headache literally cleaves his head open, leaving the prison guards baffled during their morning rounds when they open the door and find not Fred but a man named Pete (Balthazar Getty). An understandably confused twentysomething auto mechanic, Pete is released back into the world — after all, he wasn’t sentenced to die; the missing Fred was — and the film thereafter takes on a whole new form. It isn’t until Pete takes a joyride with glad-handing gangster Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia) that the true purpose of this new narrative comes into focus: The mob boss’ blond girlfriend, Alice, bears a striking resemblance to Fred’s brunette wife, Renee. As the titular Hank Williams song would suggest, the last half of the film is a blur of lost people led astray and sins that carry debts to be paid.

One thing that Lynch has made clear time and time again is that his films carry absolutely no message. He insists that his films are nothing more than a collection of ideas. Regarding the many interpretations of his most recent project, Twin Peaks: The Return (2017), the filmmaker noted, “Everybody’s a detective and whatever they come up with is valid in my mind.” It’s safe to assume the same goes for Lost Highway. Rather than poring over the film looking for meaning, it’s perhaps best to simply identify parallels between the film’s dualities and the real world. Fred argues that there are two sides to any situation and both can be disputed even with the existence of photographic or video evidence. There are also two sides to this film, which is divided down the middle but never completely severed into two unique entities; Lynch presents video evidence of the many connections between Fred and Renee and Pete and Alice. Taking this “two sides” idea further, there are also two sides to the debate over the new Lost Highway Blu-ray.

In each of these instances, reality lies somewhere in the space between the dreams and nightmares. Fred tells Renee about a nightmare, only for it to later be revealed as truth. He never gets to see what the audience sees, so it’s never more than a haunting figment to him despite his story being visualized in such a dreamlike fashion for the viewer. It’s the same with Pete, who can’t seem to remember anything before appearing in Fred’s prison cell and must rely on his family and friends to reconstruct the details of his life. All his old dreams and nightmares are lost, and the only ones that still exist are the ones that have been recounted secondhand. Similarly, those following the back-and-forth between Lynch and Kino Lorber will never be able to discern the truth that lies between the lines of their correspondence, which means both parties get to remember things their own way, not necessarily how they happened.

Toward the end of the Lost Highway, Alice says something to Pete that’s almost as important as what Fred tells the police and his wife: “You’ll never have me.” Fred will never have his wife back. Pete will never have his past back. Kino Lorber will never have Lynch’s approval on their latest release. Alternatively, Renee and Alice will never give themselves completely to the men who lust after them. David Lynch will never give up complete control over his filmography. No one is wrong and everyone is correct. No one is unconscious but everyone is asleep. It’s a nightmare that both Lynch and Lost Highway relish in.

Rating: A-

Further Viewing: Vertigo (1958); Obsession (1976); Possession (1981); Blue Velvet (1986); Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992); Eyes Wide Shut (1999); Mulholland Drive (2001).

Lost Highway is now available on Blu-ray from Kino Lorber Classics.

Tags: Kayla McCulloch The Lens Recommends Reviews

A still from 'Midsummer'.
July 2, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Darling Buds of May

2019 / USA / 140 min. / Dir. by Ari Aster / Opens in wide release on July 3, 2019

Bad relationships can be fiendishly hardy things. They can hobble along well past their expiration date, animated by pernicious habit and sustained on guilt, anxiety, and cowardice. Everyone involved might know on some level that the relationship is dead, but they still insist on propping it up in the corner and wedging a drink into its stiffened hand, contributing to a morbid farce that’s more grotesque than comical. No one wants to be the bad actor in a breakup – even when responsibility for a relationship’s failure lies overwhelmingly with one party. In an era of one-click relationship-status changes, it’s paradoxically never seemed more difficult to just walk away from a romantic bond that’s shriveled on the vine – or curdled into poison.

Such is the case with Dani (Florence Pugh) and Christian (Jack Reynor), New England graduate students who are three-plus years into a relationship that is plainly running on fumes. Christian is ambivalent, negligent, and secretive, and seems to be on his way out the door. However, he’s decent enough – or, less charitably, so obsessed with his self-image as a Nice Guy – that he can’t bring himself to pull the trigger. His roommates –  Mark (Will Poulter), Josh (William Jackson Harper), and Pelle (Vilhelm Blomgren)  – just want him to put up or shut up, pointedly reminding him that they will be proverbially drowning in single Nordic beauties when they visit Pelle’s hometown in Sweden next summer.

For her part, Dani simply wants a partner who we will be attentive and supportive, but she’s so fearful of being alone that she swallows her own needs in classically co-dependent fashion, forever apologizing to Christian for being so clingy. She’s also devoting a double-helping of emotional labor to her troubled sister, a clinically bipolar woman who drags the people around her into every clamorous drama-of-the-week. However, something about said sister’s latest, feverish email alarms Dani, even if she can’t quite put her finger on why. Predictably, Christian minimizes Dani’s concerns, condescendingly dismissing her knee-jerk indulgence of her sister’s umpteenth performative crisis. Except: This time, it’s not performance. Something truly appalling has transpired at Dani’s childhood home, something that makes it virtually impossible for Christian to extricate himself from their failing relationship, effectively putting it on life support for another six months.

This is all conveyed with enviable economy before the opening credits of writer-director Ari Aster’s emotionally raw and garishly demented sophomore horror feature, Midsommar. In the wake of the nerve-searing terror of Aster’s masterful directorial debut, Hereditary – which this critic named the Best Horror Film of 2018 – expectations are almost ridiculously high for the filmmaker’s latest effort. Fortunately, Midsommar’s prelude establishes straight away that the viewer is once again headed for a vertigo-inducing plunge into creeping dread and scouring angst of the most delectable sort. Anchored by a powerhouse performance from Pugh – who finally bests her breakout in the black-hearted period drama Lady Macbeth (2016) – the opening scenes of Midsommar establish everything the audience needs to know about the nuances of Dani and Christian’s rotten dynamic. Not that there’s anything remarkable about it: Their relationship hell is, if anything, dispiritingly banal, a tug-of-war between anxious co-dependence and spineless detachment that’s limping in circles via sheer, dead-eyed inertia. It’s a tale as old as time, but no less excruciating to watch it unfold.

When Dani learns that Christian still intends to go to Sweden with his friends, it leads to a perverse game of passive-aggressive chicken. She is upset that he would leave her behind while she’s still in the midst of a traumatic tailspin, but she’s too meek to explicitly forbid him to go or to invite herself along. Meanwhile, Christian is hoping that distance will give their anemic relationship a window to finally expire, but his shame and misplaced compassion compel him to invite Dani once his plans are exposed. (He assumes she won’t accept, which she does.) And so Dani joins the Sweden trip, a fifth wheel in what was supposed to be two weeks of bro-tastic hedonism thinly disguised as anthropological research at Pelle’s remote, pagan village in Hälsingland, near the Baltic Sea.

There the American visitors act as curious observers – and occasional tentative participants – in the community’s nine-day midsummer festivities, an every-90-years ceremony, which a twinkle-eyed Pelle assures them will be an event to remember. The guests have barely arrived when cups of hallucinogenic mushroom tea are pushed into their hands, the psychotropic disorientation that follows only heightened by the long daylight hours of the sub-Arctic midsummer. Pelle’s village certainly seems idyllic enough: a properly neat-and-tidy Scandinavian Arcadia, where all the residents are decked out in white garments and flower crowns for the festival. Not everything is enjoyable for Dani, however. For one, there’s the slender, red-headed Maja (Isabelle Grill), who almost immediately begins competing for Christian’s wandering eye. More worryingly, Dani’s still-fresh psychological scars start to become muddled with disturbing, seemingly prophetic hallucinations that are likely drug-induced … or perhaps not.

Filmgoers who have seen The Wicker Man (1973) may have some notion of where this is all headed, and there are indeed several similarities between director Robin Hardy’s low-key British horror masterwork and Aster’s film. Both features concern an isolated pagan community whose veneer of cheery Earth Mother wholesomeness conceals sinister intentions for their non-believer guests. Both are “daylight horror” tales that juxtapose their sunny, bucolic setting with a free-floating, primeval dread. In Aster’s case, he and returning Hereditary cinematographer Pawel Pogorzelski crank the feature’s brightness up to overexposed levels, blanketing the film’s visuals in the pastel colors and soft focus of a vintage postcard (or the Instagram approximation of the same).

There the similarities largely end, however. The viewer learns little of The Wicker Man’s interloper protagonist, Sgt. Neil Howie, beyond the fact that he’s a bigoted prude who seethes at the very notion of a heathen faith surviving in modern-day Britain. Midsommar, meanwhile, places Dani front and center, shaping the film’s story and mood around her subjective state of mind (and Christian’s, to a lesser degree). In fact, Aster’s film can be regarded as a horror story about a pagan cult only in the parenthetical sense. Midsommar is a Breakup Film, full stop, albeit one that requires its heroine to travel thousands of miles into the clutches of vicious fanatics to realize that, hey, He’s Just Not That Into You. Or, as Dan Savage would put it, it’s time to DTMFA.

Between Hereditary and Midsommar, it’s now apparent that the art-horror mode in which Aster operates simply isn’t a sniffy affectation or a defensive attempt to burnish occult shlock for an audience who wouldn’t know Dr. Phibes from Freddy Krueger. The juicy B-movie elements of the genre – the séances and ritual magic and shocking gore – are a means to an end for Aster. Hereditary employed a demonic family curse to explore the way that parents damn their children with the one-two hex of nature and nurture. Now Midsommar finds the director using the markers of European folk-horror to critique the miserably human compulsion to cling to relationships out of fear and habit, even when they're self-evidently terrible for all parties involved.

Aster cunningly employs the midnight sun and pagan motifs to augment the story’s atmosphere of stagnation and circularity. One sun-dazzled marathon day of eating, drinking, singing, dancing, and tripping bleeds into another. Dani and Christian seem to have the same argument over and over: She wants to leave; he wants to stay. (“You just need to acclimate,” he soothes, patronizingly. “I don’t want to acclimate; I want to go!” is her response.) Despite the serene splendor of the green village vale, Aster and Pogorzelski’s hard, geometric compositions create a mounting sense of entrapment. Dani and her companions sleep in narrow beds in a cavernous longhouse where a baby always seems to be squalling during the too-brief nocturnal hours. Meals are held at enormous, rune-shaped tables, where everyone is crammed together, rubbing elbows awkwardly with their neighbors. A chain of dancers spirals round and round a flowered maypole, duty-bound to cavort until they drop from exhaustion.

Colin Stetson’s disquieting, avant-garde-tinged score for Hereditary is a hard act to follow, but electronic artist and producer Bobby Krlic – credited under his stage name The Haxan Cloak – hauntingly embellishes the standard-issue art-horror score of dense, ambient droning with traditional Nordic instruments and vocals. The result feels like a folk musician from some bygone century got a taste of Philip Glass and Atticus Ross and liked what they heard. The film’s otherworldliness is further enhanced by subtle psychedelic visual effects. Flowers petals seem to slowly expand and contract as though the blossoms were breathing. Shimmering grass appears to flow like water and creep like tongues of fire. Enormous, primordial visages lurk among the forest foliage, as though eldritch trolls were watching with hungry curiosity.

Unlike Hereditary, whose remorseless sour-gut terror was practically punishing in its intensity, Midsommar isn’t all that scary. It’s the sort of horror film that is content to be relentlessly unnerving rather than outright frightening. Still, it conjures a sustained, insistent itch that promises something nasty is going to happen to these characters and that they are powerless to stop it. Also, unlike Hereditary, Aster’s latest feature cuts its bristling dread and gruesome shocks with copious bone-dry humor. Indeed, Midsommar can be acutely and unexpectedly funny: a deadpan, quasi-cringe stripe of comedy that invites the viewer to goggle as the characters say and do profoundly stupid, selfish, and oblivious things. (Think Girls by way of Jim Jarmusch.) This can be observed even in the little details, such as the shot of Mark standing around vaping while the Swedes perform their quaint rituals. (Mark is the group’s designated asshole and stereotypical Ugly American, so of course he vapes. He also inadvertently takes a leak on the ashes of the village’s ancestors.)

This humor serves as a reliable valve in a 140-minute film that can be downright languid in its approach to creating and sustaining anxiety. Aster deliberately stretches out scenes until their sheer inertness – and the furrowed, quizzical expressions on the characters that read, “Should something be happening now?” – begins to elicit guffaws from the audience. On more than one occasion, this is used to gently satirize the pathological tolerance of social-science academics like Christian and Josh, who put up with the locals’ cryptic silence (and far worse) in the name of remaining nonjudgmental about other cultures. This attitude is pushed to its limit relatively early in the festivities, when a pair of elderly villagers vividly demonstrates what it means to quickly and decisively end something rather than allow it to linger on in undignified misery. (It’s a lesson Dani and Christian could both take to heart vis-à-vis their relationship.)

Midsommar is a deceptively rich film, thematically speaking, more so than Hereditary. While it lacks much of the black pathos and blazing cruelty of Aster’s debut feature – and some of its focus as well; Midsommar doesn’t quite earn its puffy running time – the director’s latest film compensates for this with a more complex and conflicted worldview. One the one hand, Midsommar presents it pagan zealots as agents of ecstatic liberation, paralleling the way that Robert Eggers’ The Witch (2015) ultimately portrays satanic pacts as preferable to stifling Puritanism (especially for women). For all its primordial carnage, Aster’s film is, in part, a celebration of found families. It depicts the revelatory elation of finally learning – well into adulthood – what it’s like to have unconditional support and validation in your corner. At one point, when Dani succumbs to an uncontrollable sobbing panic, an entourage of village women join her, mimicking her shrieks. It’s at once horribly unsettling and oddly moving, a ritualized act of feminine solidarity that insists: No one has to suffer alone.

On the other hand, Midsommer also contains an unambiguous streak of skepticism toward the twisted excesses of runaway piety, another trait it shares with The Wicker Man. It’s not incidental that, like Hardy’s feature, Aster's offers no obvious in-universe evidence for the existence of the supernatural. The film is most accurately characterized as captivity horror with occult trimmings, rather than occult horror per se. “Cult horror” would be just as apt, however; not in the sense of a film with a cult following, but a film about the horrors of the cult mentality. It’s a category that could encompass features as diverse as Martyrs (2008), Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011), Sound of My Voice (2011), The Sacrament (2013), and The Invitation (2016). Quite apart from the deceptive pastoral charm of their colorful quilts and flower garlands, the insidiousness of Hälsingland’s pagan fanatics rests on well-worn psychological trickery: convincing newcomers that only the cult can provide the sense of community and acceptance that they crave.

There’s a final wrinkle that further stains the euphoric release that comprises the film’s florid, bloody, ludicrous climax. Aster maintains a lingering suspicion that Pelle’s motives are more twisted than mere ritualized violence. With hindsight, it’s apparent that the Swede has been subtly driving a wedge between Christian and Dani for some time: encouraging the former’s fantasies of infidelity while also positioning himself as a sensitive, kind-hearted shoulder for the latter’s tears. Unlike the other men, Pelle offers his earnest condolences to Dani following her losses early in the film. Later, as the primal madness of the festival ramps up in earnest, he pleads with her to stay, dropping self-serving “Christian doesn’t deserve you” declarations along the way. Ultimately, the film hints that it was Pelle's ambition all along to get Dani to the festival in Hälsingland, since every midsummer needs a worthy May Queen. The final lesson of Midsommar might be less “beware of pagan death cults” than “beware of soft boys.”

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Paris Is Burning'.
June 27, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Got to Be Real

The mainstreaming of queer culture means that nearly every Target in America has a small and strategically positioned rack of mass-produced rainbow-bedecked accoutrements for customers to own and don for their area’s June Pride festivities. The issue with the community’s representation morphing into corporatized uniformity – an idea antithetical to the celebrations of pride and of queer culture itself – is that it leads to another era of anonymity for the wildly varying non-cishet experiences.

The Lens contributors have mulled over the proliferation of queerness for mass consumption before — see the discussion of last year’s milquetoast gay teen rom-com Love, Simon — but it seems to be growing exponentially in 2019. One could point to Forbes’ recent report that even corporations with financial ties to anti-gay politicians see the benefit of selling their enemies’ lives. Less nefarious is the rise of reality competition show RuPaul’s Drag Race as a beacon of queer pop-cultural representation. Initially a cult hit buried deep in cable packages on the predominantly gay Logo TV channel, its meteoric rise in industry cred (winning multiple Emmy Awards) and general popularity led to the program shifting to the much wider-reaching VH1 and doubling its weekly running time to two hours per episode. The ouroboros nature of its fandom has led to sharp decline in its quality over its 11 seasons (plus four All-Stars iterations), while another cable network show, Ryan Murphy’s dramatic FX series Pose, has supplanted it as the beloved queer cult object from the past couple of years. An earnest and far more inclusive enterprise than the reality show, the portrait of New Yorkers at the peak of the AIDS epidemic represents a watershed moment in popular art’s front-facing trans and non-binary people of color. 

Aside from its necessity in an increasingly under-attack community, another probable cause for an uptick in the presence of pride-signaling is 2019’s marker as the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Not to underplay the significance of their forebears’ role in gay and trans liberation, but much of the pent-up anger and passion that exploded via bricks from the hands of the queer folks (and mostly of color, too) at the Christopher Street NYC bar have driven the subsequent decades’ fights for rights in their communities. Seemingly to mark the anniversary and/or possibly to ride the rainbow wave, distributors Kino Lorber and Janus Films are currently touring two restored cult classics, The Queen (1968) and Paris Is Burning (1991), which coincidentally make for a great double feature about the roots of Drag Race and Pose. Queen and Paris tower above them, however — two glittery and gutsy documentaries that, with incredible insight and clarity, allow present-day audiences to see just how much the sociopolitical standing of queer people has changed and how much has unfortunately remained stagnant.

The Queen

1968 / USA / 68 min. / Dir. by Frank Simon / Opened in select cities on June 17, 1968

Sabrina, the grand mistress of ceremonies for the 1967 Miss All-America Camp Beauty Contest and narrator of Frank Simon’s 1968 documentary about that pageant, The Queen, is keenly aware that the correlations between gender identity, performance of gender, and sexuality cannot be easily solved with some standard equation. She sits in front of a mirror, readying for a show by drawing on exaggerated eyebrows while cheekily illuminating the issue for the viewer:

My name is Jack. Well, my mother calls me Jack – everybody that cares about me calls me Jack. That’s my name, but I work under the name of Sabrina and all the queens all call me Sabrina whenever I see them. I go up to this queen and I say, ‘What’s your name?’ The queen says, ‘Monique.’ And I say, ‘That’s marvelous, darling, but what was your name before?’ And the queen will look at you straight in the eye and say, ‘There was no before.’

The takeaway is clear: For some, drag is performative fantasy; for others, it’s self-actualization. The Queen elides the fact that its emcee is Flawless Sabrina, a pioneering NYC trans entertainer, much as the succinct 68-minute film around her pithy introduction refrains from narrativizing the experiences of its subjects. Instead, Simon shapes his kaleidoscopic microcosm of queer life during the most tumultuous decade of the 20th century through small flashes of personal disclosure. With that, much of what spews forth from these bigger-than-life personalities could easily be tagged as problematic with 50 years’ worth of remove, but the frank honesty allows for discernible hierarchies of racial and socioeconomic privilege to emerge, even among these already marginalized individuals. 

This disparity is made even more apparent when one compares, on the one hand, the cramped and dank Manhattan hotel rooms in which the queens prepare themselves and, on the other, the lavish ballroom in which they’ll eventually perform before a tuxedo- and ball-gown-wearing audience that includes high-society luminaries such as a briefly glimpsed Andy Warhol. Simon’s photographers’ free-form and fluid 16mm cinematography makes great use of these claustrophobic yet dazzling environments – glitter, moldy walls, pounds of foundation, pock-marked faces, overblown mod fashions and hairdos, and more. Simon and his crew forgo traditional setups for a vérité approach, and so The Queen looks, feels, and sounds like Paul Morrissey directed an episode of RuPaul’s Drag Race. A low-angle shot of the blond-wigged Mario Montez botching “Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend” as floating bubbles burst into the camera’s lens makes for a particularly striking and hallucinatory avant-pop image. 

The contradiction of becoming the elite’s amusement while fleshing out their own lavish and incredibly important fantasies is heartbreakingly realized in the documentary’s final shot: Rachel Harlow, the pageant’s victor, waiting in street dress for her subway home to Philadelphia while she fondles her measly prize. I’m Miss All-America and all I got was this lousy crown. This is after the real winner of The Queen, Crystal LeBeija — mother of the House of LaBeija, one of the many prominent drag “families” — calls out the competition’s oppressive society-in-miniature that prevented the queen of color from being crowned over a pretty, young, blond one. With her fiery and deserving righteousness, she all but ignites the film’s very celluloid material.

Rating: B+

Paris Is Burning

1990 / USA / 71 min. / Dir. by Jennie Livingston / Opened in select cities on Mar. 13, 1991

Jennie Livingston’s joyous and empathetic Paris Is Burning acts as a quasi-sequel to The Queen by checking in on an offshoot of the NYC drag scene during the latter half of the 1980s: the ballroom scene. That particular phrasing comes across as stodgy (and very white), but that’s entirely its raison d'etre. Balls and their lifestyle are all about repurposing and reclamation. Empty Harlem banquet halls, gymnasiums, and theaters become exclusively queer spaces for people of color to perform and compete in all sorts of personae, redefining the art as not an exclusively outward gender-flipping satire (no, this is not camp) but as a complete realization of wish fulfillment. Instead of only awarding top beauty queen (to be fair, there’s some of that, too), the categories here are military realness, schoolboy/girl realness, luscious body, butch queen, town and country, executive realness, et al.

“You’re showing the straight world that I can be an executive – if I had the opportunity I could be one ’cause I can look like one,” remarks one competitor. “That is like a fulfillment.” That Paris captures the overriding bootstrapping-yuppie milieu of the time is no coincidence, as the ball scene is seemingly born out of Reaganomics. For the underprivileged here, however, all that’s trickled down is the consumerist aspirations with none of the supposed economic opportunity. To label them as consumers is not a criticism of their hopes and dreams – they deserve their piece of the societal pie they’ve helped bake – but Paris smartly observes the ends to which this community’s members are forced for survival. An elegaic coda features the tale of the murder of the effervescent and frequent trophy-grabbing Venus Xtravaganza, whose main source of income comes from sex work. Found strangled to death under a Manhattan hotel-room bed, her death could likely have been prevented if her work were destigmatized and regulated and her trans identity not completely denigrated – an achingly familiar story still being repeated today.

In the face of these adversities, the resilient participants are nevertheless headstrong, made tough-as-nails from their stratified and death-haunted existence (this is peak AIDS epidemic, after all). Their war faces are ones of exuberance and passion, showcasing great autonomy over their own underground haven. Pepper LaBeija (who inherited the title of House of LaBeija’s mother from The Queen’s Crystal) cockily strutting down a makeshift runway, her sequin gown emanating a golden glow, is as radiant an image as any in cinema, documentary or not. That Livingston gained privileged access to this secret world is a miracle, and her film acts as an introductory lexicon to the uninitiated. Title cards announce various sections – “Shade,” “Voguing,” “Houses,” “Mopping” – as subjects humbly define and demonstrate each aspect of their scene. If those words sound familiar, blame today’s appropriation of the ballroom through their familiarity with the Paris-saluting (or is it cribbing?) RuPaul’s Drag Race or Pose, the latter of which is essentially a fictionalized version of Paris. Without even mentioning the great appropriator of the ball scene, Madonna with her song “Vogue,” the film’s aforementioned epilogue aptly touches on the nascent mainstreaming of their sacred society, one that has fully blossomed today.

Regarding its structural invention, Paris becomes the inverse of The Queen. The former lacks an overall narrative conceit but allows characters to speak to their own arcs, while the latter creates a linear story of a pageant through the refracted experiences of its participants. The strategy here allows for indelible humanity, and Livingston’s documentary is one of the great under-studied, under-heralded examples of cinema as an empathetic time machine. Paris Is Burning, with its scant runtime of 78 minutes, bursts with more life in each of its frames than the entirety of the 10-plus-hour, relatively good television show inspired by it, Pose. Capturing these Harlem denizens on celluloid and not making a film this combustible was already likely impossible. By adopting her subjects’ refusal of normativity in every filmmaking choice, the result is the ultimate homage to a lifestyle and people who might have certainly been erased from the cultural consciousness without her gracious document.

Rating: A

The Queen is out-of-print on consumer home video, but Kino Lorber’s new restoration of the film is currently touring theatricially in the U.S. A new home video release is expected in Fall 2019. 

Paris Is Burning is out-of-print on consumer home video, but can currently be streamed on Netflix. Janus Films’ new restoration of the film will be screening at the Webster University Film Series on Aug. 16-17 and Sept. 6-8 at 7:30 p.m. 

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Toy Story 4'.
June 27, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Woody's Roundup

2019 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Josh Cooley / Opened in wide release on June 21, 2019

Toy Story (1995) is hugely important — not only was it the first feature-length computer-animated film, but it was also the first feature from Pixar Animation Studios. The family-friendly film was commissioned by Walt Disney Pictures after the success of several Pixar animated shorts, most notably “Tin Toy” (1988), which follows a tiny metal toy trying to escape from a crudely animated infant. With Toy Story’s groundbreaking style and an all-star voice cast that included the likes of Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Laurie Metcalf, Don Rickles, and Wallace Shawn, it’s not surprising that the movie earned almost $374 million worldwide.

Even less surprising is the fact that this first film’s success spawned toys, games, theme-park attractions, spin-off series, and two equally successful sequels in 1999 and 2010. The latter, Toy Story 3, is a seriously heavy and emotionally draining conclusion to the 15-year-long story of Andy and his trusty companions Sheriff Woody (Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Allen). Despite the fact that the third chapter earned nearly triple the first film’s worldwide box office, Pixar thereafter let the Toy Story trilogy lie —  and rightfully so, given that everything was wrapped up so perfectly by the time the credits rolled. Nine years later, the studio has decided that what the world needs now is a fourth Toy Story film.

Fittingly, Toy Story 4 opens with a title card that reads “nine years ago.” In the middle of a mission to save RC from a rush of rainwater, a car pulls up and carries Bo Peep (Annie Potts) and her sheep away in a cardboard box — Andy’s little sister, Molly, has no use for her anymore, so her mom has sold the toy to a new owner. After a bittersweet exchange between Woody and Bo, the two go their separate ways. Flashing forward, the toys are back where Andy left them at the end of Toy Story 3: in Bonnie’s room, where a new normal has set in. Mirroring the treatment he received in the first film, Woody feels he has been left behind by his owner, who now favors other toys to him.

As Bonnie prepares to head to kindergarten orientation, Woody notices she is distraught without the comfort of a toy in her hand. He takes it on himself to hop into her backpack and join her for the day, secretly providing a helping hand and eventually tossing her a spork, a pipe cleaner, a popsicle stick, two googly eyes, and a couple of Wikki Stix: exactly what Bonnie needs to create her new best friend, Forky (Tony Hale). When she gets picked up, her parents tell her their family is headed on a road trip for the last week of summer. From here, the standard-fare Toy Story adventure kicks in, shifting from leisurely to high-stakes with very little warning.

This breakneck change of pace could be explained by the film’s tumultuous journey to the big screen — something that hangs over the entire viewing experience. Back in 2010, Lee Unkrich — Toy Story and Toy Story 2 editor and Toy Story 3 director — insisted that Woody and Buzz wouldn’t be back anytime soon. Four years later, Toy Story 4 was announced to investors with Pixar Studio head John Lasseter returning to direct a script written by Rashida Jones and Will McCormack. Describing it as a “romantic comedy,” those close to the project stated that the film wouldn’t be a continuation of the three previous films but an entirely separate story. Then, over the course of four months in late 2017, the film lost its director to sexual-misconduct allegations and its writers to “philosophical differences.” Director Josh Cooley and writers Stephany Folsom and Andrew Stanton were brought on, and production continued as if nothing had happened. The final product feels like several different movies blended smoothly together, with the plot cycling between a rescue mission, a soul search, and a road trip without ever feeling like the Frankenstein film that it could have been.

No matter which of Toy Story 4’s many minds came up with Forky, his character is certainly the most compelling of the new batch. In the first Toy Story, Woody and Buzz are the most popular toys on the market. At their inception, their popularity as products was limited only to the world that existed on screen. With the release of Toy Story 4 nearly a quarter-century later, the group of toys is as instantly recognizable in our world as they are in the film’s. That’s why Woody’s reaction to Forky is so telling — the sheriff can’t help but spiral into anxiety at the thought of Forky being one in a million rather than one of millions, like the manufactured toys.

The most confounding part about that notion is that Forky toys are currently for sale in the real world, available either pre-packaged and pre-assembled or in a “creativity set,” complete with instructions on how to assemble Forky just like in the movie. For the characters in Toy Story 4, the originality of Forky is a threat. The opposite is true of the writers’ room for the film: For this beloved brand to remain relevant, it’s going to have to implement a safe amount of originality if they want to feel fresh. It’s as if Forky is a call to be creative, but only to a certain extent — practically the antithesis to The LEGO Movie (2014), which (despite also being a toy commercial) asked audiences to go against the instruction manuals of their LEGO sets and build what they want. Forky is all but forgotten for a large portion of the film’s middle stretch, dumped in exchange for a storyline that encourages viewers to follow their hearts, so it’s understandable that this call to be creative gets muddled in the reflected light of a much safer, more generic message.

Ultimately, none of this matters to Toy Story 4’s primary audience: children. The film provides the recognizable characters, the impressive animation, and the family-friendly humor that the Pixar name has become synonymous with over the course of the 20 animated features they’ve released since Toy Story. Families are sure to have a good time as they encounter faces both new and old, with Duke Kaboom (Keanu Reeves) and Gabby Gabby (Christine Hendricks) playing key roles and Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele bringing some caustic comedy into the mix with their characters Ducky and Bunny. Bonnie is an amicable and involved character — arguably more so than Andy, who mostly stayed out of the picture during the adventures that took place in the first three films — and her presence never feels unwanted. It’s worth mentioning that some may miss the company of Buzz, Jessie, and the rest of Andy’s toys: Despite what the film’s advertising campaign would lead audiences to believe, this movie is less about Forky (or any of the other toys) and more about Woody resolving his four-film-long arc, pushing many main characters from past films into supporting roles.

That said, viewers tired of sequels are not likely to find anything in Toy Story 4 that will make them change their minds — it’s far better than the fourth entries from other animated franchises like Shrek Forever After (2010) or Ice Age: Collision Course (2016), but there’s nothing here that hasn’t been touched on in other Toy Story films. Woody’s treatment mirrors the way Andy tossed him aside in exchange for Buzz in Toy Story. The same goes for the horror and existentialism that set in among the toys once they meet Forky — a similar theme is explored in the first film when Woody and Buzz come face-to-face with Sid’s horrendous creations. Even Gabby Gabby and her antique store feel a little too close to Lotso and the daycare prison featured in Toy Story 3.

Behind the scenes, current Pixar Animation Studio head Pete Docter has pledged to invest solely in original projects for the foreseeable future. This goal is especially promising after the nine-year-long string of sequels that started with Toy Story 3. At the studio’s inception, original ideas flowed freely, with only one sequel appearing in Pixar’s first 15 years. Since then, a breath of fresh air from Pixar seemed hard to come by — seven of the studio’s past 11 films have been follow-ups of some kind. As with the original Toy Story, Toy Story 4 serves as a starting line for an exciting slate of never-before-seen ideas. With no more sequels on the horizon, here’s hoping Pixar’s next chapter is as promising as its first.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'The Last Black Man in San Francisco'.
June 25, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

You Can't Go Home Again

2019 / USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Joe Talbot / Opened in select cities on June 7, 2019; locally on June 21, 2019

A city is a perpetually mutating organism. Like all gradual processes, this evolution often occurs in such tiny, iterative steps that one barely notices change is happening at all. There are exceptions, of course, where a natural disaster or public-works project sweeps through and overthrows the existing urban order in a relatively short span of time. For the most part, however, a city is eroded and replaced through a thousand cuts, a Ship of Theseus realized on the metropolis scale. One day, you look around and realize that your neighborhood has changed, for better or worse: The faces are unrecognizable, the familiar feels uncanny, and living memories have been replaced by strange and haunted spaces.

This sense of being unsettled in one’s lifelong stomping ground suffuses writer-director Joe Talbot’s lyrical and eccentric debut feature, The Last Black Man in San Francisco. Proximally, this is a story about gentrification: individuals, families, and communities elbowed aside as their neighborhoods become desirable to more affluent property owners. There are few places in America where this phenomenon is more evident than in the Bay Area, which is ground zero for one of the nation’s grimmest and most persistent housing crises. TLBMISF simmers with indignation over this sort of slow-motion displacement, but Talbot’s film is not, strictly speaking, a jeremiad against the evils of wealthy white encroachment into historically minority-owned spaces. Instead, the director approaches the subject as a personal, bittersweet modern fairy tale, and in doing so expands and deepens his feature’s themes, embracing all the ways that people can be made to feel like strangers in their own backyards.

Co-written by Talbot and Rob Richert, TLBMISF stars Jimmie Fails, who makes his captivating feature acting debut as a character who is also named Jimmie Fails. (He and Talbot share a story credit, and several aspects of the film essentially constitute fictionalized autobiography.) A skateboarding twentysomething who works as a nurse at a long-term senior-care facility, Jimmie is restless and rootless in the fashion of many young men. He sleeps on the floor in the cramped bedroom of his best friend, Montgomery Allen (Jonathan Majors), a soft-spoken fishmonger and amateur playwright who lives with and cares for his blind grandfather (Danny Glover). The Allen home is tiny and aging, but at least it’s a home.

That's more than Jimmie has right now. He spends his waking hours obsessing over the long-lost home where he lived until his was 6 years old, a gorgeous Victorian-style townhouse in the Fillmore District, smack in the heart of San Francisco. Jimmie’s grandfather purportedly built the house in the 1940s, mimicking the style of the surrounding properties, most of which were owned by Japanese-Americans until those families were removed and scattered across the Pacific Coast by World War II-era internment. The Fails house is now owned by an older, affluent white couple, but in Jimmie’s persnickety judgment, they’ve allowed the property to fall into disrepair. He accordingly spends his free time performing minor maintenance to the façade – re-painting the red and gold trim, for example, when it begins to fade and peel. Unfortunately, the current owners regard his unsolicited handyman labor as little more than a creepy, possessive form of trespassing.

Following a death in the family, however, the former Fails house becomes mired in an estate dispute, and the current owners vacate it. The empty, unattended property is too much of a temptation for Jimmie to resist, and he accordingly sneaks into the house and squats there, soaking up the remembrances that lay dormant in its stained-glass windows, wooden staircases, and dusty pipe organ. Mont eventually joins him, claiming the majestic dining room as his own space. Jimmie soon pays a visit to his Auntie Wanda (Tichina Arnold), fibbing about having his own place and convincing her to relinquish some of his granddad's old furniture, which is currently collecting cobwebs in storage. Now properly outfitted with vintage furnishings, the friends begin fantasizing guilelessly about the simple pleasures of home ownership, an all-too-easy enticement in a grand old residence like the Fails house. (Gardening! Parties! Reading the paper and sipping coffee!) They even change the locks.

“Maybe we shouldn’t be here,” Jimmie muses in a rare moment of doubt. “Who should be here more?” retorts Mont, his own misgivings assuaged by the house’s gingerbread charm and antique opulence. “Some millionaire?” Jimmie has no response to that, and he can’t deny that the house feels like a birthright, something that was once swindled away and has now been reclaimed. Naturally, this bubble of nostalgia and sanctuary eventually bursts, but the magic of TLBMISF lies in how Talbot conveys the irresistible gravitational force of a place, the way its comforting embrace can make myopic delusion seem like the most reasonable thing in the world. The viewer is compelled to share Jimmie’s cozy sense of domestic bliss, notwithstanding the nagging awareness that it’s all built on a foundation of sand.

Talbot achieves this by crafting a fantastical sensibility around his film from the very first scene. A street preacher (Willie Hen) standing on a milk crate pontificates on the allegedly shady environmental cleanup occurring in the bay across from the Allen house, his cadences pitched halfway between a Sunday revival and a conspiratorial rant. The film’s cockeyed, wistful version of San Francisco is populated by such colorful characters, most of them faintly exaggerated but sketched with the affectionate warmth of a hometown playwright. Some of these individuals represent whiter and wealthier segments of the city – such as Finn Whittrock’s owlshit-slick real-estate agent, a SF native who can sniff out a high-six-figure down payment like a shark smells blood.

Mostly, however, Talbot and Richert’s screenplay maintains focus on the city’s down-and-out African-American characters. This includes Jimmie’s acerbic, semi-estranged father (Rob Morgan), a shiftless bootleg-DVD hustler who reacts furiously to the discovery that his son is occupying the old family home. “That’s not your old house and that’s not your neighborhood!” James Sr. snaps, the ambiguity of this declaration just one example of the script’s plainspoken elegance. By means of recurring personalities like the preacher and a Greek chorus of blustering, tattooed neighborhood toughs – as well as one-off characters such as the Candy Lady (Dakecia Chappell) who runs a gray-market corner store out of her living room – Talbot establishes a kinship with Spike Lee’s epochal Do the Right Thing (1989) and its vivid, hyper-real depiction of Brooklyn street life.

The film’s warm, quixotic atmosphere is further enhanced by Adam Newport-Berra’s glorious cinematography, which captures the city in all its iterations: crystalline and gleaming; soft and autumnal; chintzy and crumbling; and, of course, wrapped in pale sea fog, which in one crucial scene becomes a Stygian herald of tragedy. Talbot’s style is daring and dynamic, freely mixing fussy compositions with slouching naturalism, feisty montage with ultra-slow-motion indulgence. It’s a credit to the talents of the director, cinematographer, and editor David Marks that this kitchen-sink formal approach – which evinces influence from filmmakers as diverse as Wes Anderson, Terrence Malick, Sam Raimi, and the aforementioned Lee – feels enchanting rather than schizophrenic.

Although there is undeniably a political dimension to TLBMISF, as one might expect from a film about gentrification and black displacement, Talbot and Fails’ screenplay is energized foremost by its characters. Through Jimmie and Mont, the film finds ways to explore several forms of urban alienation. With his tweed jacket and Moleskine full of sketches and half-finished plays, Mont is both unapologetic about his sensitive-artist inclinations and self-conscious about how awkwardly he fits into “his” neighborhood. (There’s even a scene where he practices his African-American Vernacular in front of the mirror.) Given his grunge-rocker wardrobe and the skateboard slung under his arm, Jimmie is also subtly marked as a misfit, and the pair’s inseparable nature inevitably invites homophobic insinuations from the Greek chorus. The norms of black hetero masculinity rumble uncomfortably through the story, adding a layer of anxious complexity to the already-fraught drama of the Fails homestead. This tension comes to a head when one of the chorus members, Kofi (Jamal Trulove), begins dropping by the house, and his queer-flavored intentions briefly disrupt the household’s almost matrimonial equipoise.

Talbot’s film is funnier, sweeter, and weirder than this summary of the plot might suggest, often finding dry humor in the absurdities of race, class, and geography. In one scene, Jimmie encounters a gaggle of white architectural tourists on Segways and ends up cheerfully schooling the guide on the real history of the Fails house. In a running gag, the Muni bus that Jimmie and Mont wait for every morning never actually appears, repeatedly necessitating a tandem skateboard dash through the city’s rolling streets. (Inviting stares from Korean grocers, Airpod-wearing tech bros, and leftover Haight-Ashbury weirdos alike.) Like Carlos López Estrada’s shamefully under-seen Blindspotting (2018) – another tale of male friendship, racial tensions, and Bay Area gentrification – TLMISF expertly blends its scrappy wit with an earnest examination of place, identity, and ownership. This emotional and thematic nimbleness is what makes Talbot’s debut so auspicious. It’s a film that evokes profound melancholy over its characters’ personal losses and the real-world plight of black Americans, while also nurturing a vital existential truth: A person is more than the four walls that surround them.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Dead Don't Die'.
June 20, 2019
By Kayla McCulloch

Dying Together Isn’t Going to Solve Anything

2019 / USA, Sweden / 104 min. / Dir. by Jim Jarmusch / Opened in select cities on June 14, 2019

Jim Jarmusch is sick of zombies. “What’s cool about a zombie?” He asks during an interview with Rolling Stone. “They’re lifeless forms. They’re soulless humanoids. They’re an excuse.” It’s not a surprising take from a humanist like Jarmusch, given that  much of the filmmaker-musician’s leisurely paced filmography couldn’t be more different from George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1968). Jarmusch’s last film, Paterson (2016), starred Adam Driver as the titular bus driver who finds poetic inspiration in the conversations around his daily routes — both on and off the job. Broken Flowers (2005), follows a perpetual bachelor (Bill Murray) as he searches for the adult son he didn’t know he had. The rest of Jarmusch’s oeuvre isn’t far off from this vibe: stories about lonely people parsing their lonely situations, featuring poignant observations about humanity and the world around them. Of course Jarmusch is sick of zombies — he clearly loves humans. There’s the problem, though: This firm anti-zombie stance coincides with Jarmusch’s latest feature, the zombie comedy The Dead Don’t Die.

At its outset, The Dead Don’t Die feels like any other Jim Jarmusch film. Centerville, Penn., police officers Ron and Cliff (Adam Driver and Bill Murray, respectively) confront an oddball drifter named Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), the three of them taking part in an amusing bit of deadpan about missing chickens before Ron and Cliff head back to their tiny, three-desk police station. From there, the film hops back and forth between a diner, a motel, a gas station-turned-comic shop, a juvenile detention center, and a funeral home, with each location showcasing Centreville’s peculiar Twin Peaks-y residents as they try to make sense of the increasingly strange occurrences in their small town.

This loose, free-floating style will feel familiar to Jarmusch fans accustomed to the director’s frequent use of interconnected vignettes in place of traditional plot points — Mystery Train (1989), Night on Earth (1991), and Coffee and Cigarettes (2003) all follow a similar method. This laid-back approach to storytelling lets conversations breathe, allows the plot (however ephemeral it may be) to develop organically, and keeps the world of the film chugging along at a pace not dissimilar from the world beyond the darkened movie theater. This is something Jarmusch often expresses an interest in — keeping the pace of his films at or around that of the real world — and The Dead Don’t Die is no exception.

The faces, too, will be familiar to Jarmusch fans. In addition to Driver, Murray, and Waits, The Dead Don’t Die uses other frequent Jarmusch collaborators: Tilda Swinton (who portrays a Scottish samurai-sword-wielding mortician); Chloë Sevigny (who works alongside Driver and Murray’s characters at the police station and serves as the resident scream queen); Steve Buscemi (having some fun as a curmudgeonly farmer sporting a “Keep America White Again” cap); Eszter Balint (as Fern, the stereotypical diner owner, collared dress and all); Rosie Perez (playing a newscaster tasked with all the expository dialogue); RZA (as a delivery man for “Wu-PS”); and Iggy Pop and Sara Driver (who appear briefly as a pair of coffee-loving zombies). These actors, working together with new faces like Danny Glover, Caleb Landry Jones, and Selena Gomez, are all more than willing to go along with whatever Jarmusch’s script has in store for them.

Given that the structure is typical Jarmusch and most of the cast is Jarmusch-friendly, why does The Dead Don’t Die stick out like a sore thumb — or, rather, a rotting arm from the ground — compared to the rest of the filmmaker’s oeuvre? The script is definitely the problem. It’s self-aware and it’s angry. As a movie lover himself, Jarmusch’s films often dive head-first into genre. Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai (1999) audaciously embraces the best parts of both martial-arts movies and gangster movies. Only Lovers Left Alive (2014) isn’t afraid to be an unapologetic vampire romance. One would assume that The Dead Don’t Die would do the same with zombie movies. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case — instead of paying homage to the genre or, more adventurously, taking it to new heights (or depths), the only zombie movie the director is all that interested in emulating is George A. Romero’s foundational 1968 film (and, to a lesser degree, his 1978 sequel, Dawn of the Dead). This isn’t just an assumption: Characters openly discuss Night of the Living Dead and Romero, sometimes going as far as to directly quote from the film. This runs directly into a filmmaking rule of thumb: References to unimpeachable classics make audiences wish they were watching that movie instead of the one they’re in the middle of. The Dead Don’t Die functions as an affectionate tribute to Night, to be sure, but it mostly just elicits a longing for the original zombocalyptic recipe.

Taking this surface-level zombie-movie self-awareness a step further, a few characters within The Dead Don’t Die are actually conscious of the fact that they’re just actors in a movie. Every time Sturgill Simpson’s title track plays, characters comment on it being the movie’s theme song and how tired they are of hearing it. Ron takes every opportunity he can get to remind his colleagues that “this isn’t going to end well.” (Ron also carries around a Star Wars keychain.) Even the decision for a humanist like Jarmusch to make a zombie movie feels somewhat meta — the man who loves (and has hope in) humanity has made a film about the undead reclaiming the Earth. It all feels a bit too contrived, as if Jarmusch had run out of ideas and didn’t know how to wrap up the story.

The Dead Don’t Die doesn’t completely flatline, but it can’t really function without life support. It’s obvious that Jarmusch is no longer comfortable with the apolitical stance that characterized his past films. Underneath the metafiction, there’s a palpable sense of outrage and frustration at the government, another key component of The Dead Don’t Die that feels very un-Jarmusch. In an early scene, three pre-teens at the Centerville Detention Center — it’s probably not a coincidence that the abbreviation “CDC” also stands for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — gather around the TV as a news broadcast explains that polar fracking has knocked the Earth off its axis. They talk about the gravity of the situation and about their fear for the world, only to be sent back to their rooms by a couple of uncaring corrections officers while politicians and their mouthpieces on the news insist there’s nothing to worry about. Buscemi’s racist farmer gripes about country music, trespassers, and even his dog Rumsfeld, offering a clear satire of Trump supporters. Even the children of Centerville harbor a deep-seated misanthropy, swearing at strangers as they pass by.

As evidenced by these numerous departures, The Dead Don’t Die is not a typical Jarmusch movie. Normally, one would not leave one of the director’s films wondering what it all means — everything the filmmaker wants to say can often be found right there in the dialogue. That’s not the case here; Jarmusch’s wide array of targets means there’s almost too much to consider after one departs the theater. Is the filmmaker saying that children are the future, that this younger generation contained within the walls of the CDC are humanity’s only hope? Or is he insisting that we’re all slaves to our possessions, each one of us zombies going through the motions of our daily lives in search of more stuff? It’s possible that Jarmusch intentionally left these questions unanswered, the loose ends suggesting that there’s still time to avoid our civilization’s looming bad ending.

Despite the shortcomings that accompany the director’s many risks, The Dead Don’t Die isn’t a complete failure. For every creative decision that falls flat, there’s a visual gag or bit of dialogue that delivers. It would be near-impossible for a Jarmusch film with a cast this talented to be a total bust. Their chemistry is infectious, especially with Adam Driver and Swinton doing much of the heavy lifting. Sure, audiences might not be laughing out loud at every beat, but Jarmusch’s pitch-black deadpan frequently elicits the kind of laughter that manifests itself as a quick exhale through the nose. In the end, maybe this is what The Dead Don’t Die is supposed to leave the viewer with: memories of those little puffs of air, a reminder that, unlike the undead citizens of Centerville, we’re still alive and breathing.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Kayla McCulloch

A still from 'Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese'.
June 18, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Shake Your Windows and Rattle Your Walls

2019 / USA / 142 min. / Dir. by Martin Scorsese / Premiered online on June 12, 2019

The ideal audience for director Martin Scorsese’s curious new Netflix documentary – which boasts the party-sub-sized official title Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story by Martin Scorsese – is unquestionably composed of passionate Bob Dylan fans. This is typical when a new volume in the ever-burgeoning compendium of “Dylanology” is birthed into the world. Elvis might be the closest thing to an American metaphor in the rock-star flesh – as illustrated in Eugene Jarecki’s brilliant documentary from last year, The King – but Dylan’s cult of personality is arguably deeper, more defensible, and more sophisticated. (His devotees would certainly argue as much.) With its plethora of vintage concert footage, wild backstage encounters, and patented Dylan mystique, Rolling Thunder will naturally appeal to hardcore fans of the aged folk god.

However, even a viewer who knows virtually nothing about Bob Dylan or the titular tour that crisscrossed America and Canada in 1975-’76 is likely to find Rolling Thunder Revue strangely fascinating. There’s a moment when such uninitiated souls may start to suspect that Scorsese is up to something much weirder and more rascally than the mere reverent documentation. That point comes when Sharon Stone, of all people – allegedly absorbed into the tour chiefly for being a gorgeous 19-year-old model in a KISS T-shirt – relates a droll anecdote. In a rare private moment with Stone, Dylan purportedly plunked out “Just Like a Woman” on the piano, revealing that he wrote it just for her. Dylanites will already be smirking in amusement at this point, but Stone delivers the punchline for the newbies: As another member of the tour later broke the news to her, Dylan had composed that song almost a decade prior. (It was, in fact, the fourth U.S. single from his legendary, double-platinum 1967 rock LP, Blonde on Blonde.)

It’s a great little yarn that epitomizes Dylan’s propensity for good-natured historical revisionism and mischievous bullshitting. It’s also the moment in the film when the scales may start to fall away from the eyes of some viewers. Did this episode really happen? Wouldn’t a starry-eyed Dylan fan recognize one of his biggest singles? Wait: Did Stone ever actually tour with the Revue? Something about the story smells, but that fishiness is by design. Dylan purportedly conceived of the tour’s spirit as something halfway between commedia dell'arte and a traveling medicine show. In fact, there are several, conflicting stories about the etymology of that name, “Rolling Thunder Revue,” and Scorsese’s documentary does little to clarify the historical record. Indeed, the filmmaker seems to have picked up Dylan’s taste for enigmatic mythologizing and amplified its puckish qualities.

Rolling Thunder is as much a work of navel-gazing fiction as it is a proper concert film or rose-colored retrospective. It’s a cinematic puzzle cube steeped in Boomer nostalgia, one that manages to cunningly subvert the self-fellating tendency that characterizes most long, strange trips into 1960s-’70s music culture. Compared to Scorsese’s last Dylan documentary, the more conventional and encyclopedic No Direction Home (2005), the director’s latest feels both focused and loose. It’s a verité lazy-river float through a narrow period in Dylan’s career – and, more generally, past an intriguing inflection point in rock celebrity and American culture generally. (Tellingly, Rolling Thunder scrambles the chronology a little to lead with the Bicentennial and its enforced moment of national self-reflection.)

Not that anyone thought much of the Rolling Thunder Revue at the time. The sprawling, evolving tour was considered a financial failure for its promoters, and its artistic impact was debatable, notwithstanding the impressive lineup and the novelty of a post-breakout Dylan playing smaller, scruffier venues, including gymnasiums and a women’s prison. However, the Revue quickly entered the canon of Dylanology thanks to its live recordings (and countless bootlegs), not to mention Renaldo and Clara, the 1978 experimental film that resulted from the tour. Directed by Dylan and co-written with Sam Shepard, Renaldo is a kind of concert film/meta-fiction hybrid – much like Rolling Thunder itself. The 1978 feature is a notoriously esoteric fragment of Dylan apocrypha, mainly because it became virtually impossible to screen after its initial release and critical drubbing. (Renaldo remains unavailable to consumers in its original form.)

Constructed partly from the B-roll footage of Dylan’s cinematic flop, Scorsese’s film is accordingly the closest thing to full exhumation of Renaldo that the world is likely to see. Thankfully, the director mostly allows the performances to speak for themselves. Captured in 16mm color by Renaldo’s cinematographers Howard Alk, David Meyers, and Paul Goldsmith, the footage looks especially gorgeous during the live concert sequences. Scorsese permits the original long, sustained closeups of the performers to play out without interruption, presenting songs in their entirety – mostly hits like “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door,” “Tangled Up in Blue,” “Simple Twist of Fate,” and “Hurricane.” It’s ecstatically focused stuff, if only as a means to convey the bottled-lightning wizardry of Dylan and his fellow travelers – including Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, Roger McGuinn, Ronee Blakely, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott – absolutely killing it onstage. There’s a moment when the limo driver for oddball tour violinist Scarlet Rivera confesses that he’s never been to a rock concert before. When he enthuses that the spiritual connection he felt between the performers and the audience was positively electric, it’s hard not to concur.

There’s also an embarrassment of fascinating (maybe) candid footage captured in backstage rooms, on the tour bus, and in otherwise banal moments between shows. At times, it has the feeling of a faintly grotesque carnival, seething with whimsy and weirdness, like a post-Aquarian Hunter S. Thompson essay brought to life. It also recalls the whirlwind of carousing, jockeying, and low-key assholery in Orson Welles’ posthumous The Other Side of the Wind (2018) – albeit with less ravenous cynicism. Rolling Stone writer Larry “Ratso” Sloman roams around, pestering everyone with his needling questions and ingratiating manner. Poet Allen Ginsberg commands the viewer’s attention just by talking, his wonderful words flowing forth like a spring of mellow, radical wisdom. (The punchline: Ginsberg’s stage time keeps getting cut by the promoters as the tour progresses, to make time for music acts that will sell more tickets.) Dylan strolls around like a troubadour in a cafeteria full of restive Iroquois, singing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” while tribal leaders looks on awkwardly. And then there’s the anonymous concertgoer, who, after the Revue finishes their last song at some low-rent New England civic center, just breaks down and sobs, inconsolably and silently, as though seized by a post-Watergate inversion of Beatlemania.

It takes a little bit for Rolling Thunder to find its footing, but after some throat-clearing, Scorsese settles into a gratifying rhythm, alternating the stage performances with sections that blend offstage footage and contemporary interviews. Solely as a concert film, it’s engaging stuff that more than justifies its 142-minute running time – there’s a thoughtfulness and modesty to the director’s approach here that isn’t evident in his glossy, frenetic Rolling Stones feature Shine a Light (2008). Underneath the revolutionary spirit, however, there’s still that strain of blatant, occasionally acerbic bullshit that runs through the whole enterprise. Other than the concert footage, everything in Rolling Thunder is an unsorted jumble of truth and lies, which seems to be exactly how the director and singer-songwriter both prefer it. When asked about the tour’s origins early in the film, a present-day Dylan answers in his vaguely testy grand-uncle way, “I don’t remember a thing about it. I wasn’t even born.” OK then.

Scorsese’s film embraces this maddening meta-inscrutability, turning it into a midway magic trick with a folk-rock soundtrack. The tell is an initially inexplicable insert of an 1896 Georges Méliès short featuring a stage illusionist who makes a woman vanish and reappear. Scorsese has crafted a similar mirage around a core of musical truth: a hypnotic, self-reflexive gestalt object, difficult to pick apart but devilishly easy to just kick back and relish. It’s infinitely subtler than the recent Elton John biopic-fantasia Rocketman – but just as madcap in its protest-song way, and equally enamored with the notion of mythmaking. For a Scorsese film, Rolling Thunder is unexpectedly smirking and slippery; a rambling, docu-fiction voyage in the spirit of Robert Greene and late-period Welles. There’s a little of filmmaker Penny Lane’s coy and crafty quasi-docs (Our Nixon; Nuts!) in there, too.

The central fictional conceit in Rolling Thunder is that the film’s 1975-’76 footage was shot by British director “Stefan Van Dorp,” here played with scabrous world-weariness by performance artist Martin Von Haselberg. Van Dorp is positioned as the vaguely skeptical outsider in the tour’s entourage, and in interviews he’s perpetually undermining other members’ recollections and destabilizing the viewer’s expectations. He asserts that Dylan barely spoke to him during either the fall 1975 or spring 1976 legs; but also claims that the musician co-opted his European style of smoking cigarettes almost immediately. It’s an unflattering characterization – Dylan as an aloof mimic, constantly absorbing affectations yet fundamentally unknowable – but also one that’s consistent with the man’s established persona. (And, of course, one that Dylan tacitly approved, given that he agreed to appear in the film.)

Perhaps it’s for the best that Dylan has kept Renaldo and Clara hidden away from the public for so long, given that its recycled and castoff maybe-falsehoods play quite well from the hazy, post-truth vantage point of 2019. When Michael Murphy eventually appears as one of his old characters, U.S. Rep. Jack Tanner from Robert Altman’s HBO miniseries Tanner ’88, Scorsese’s film finally tilts into some kind of meta-fictional New Hollywood cinematic universe. The presence of Sam Shepard – who characterizes himself as a glorified roadie, rather than fessing up to his role as a scripter for the fictional 1970s footage – adds an additional layer of morbid uncanniness, given that the acclaimed playwright and actor passed away in 2017. Naturally, there are already explainers online that tease the historical fact in Rolling Thunder from the winking fiction, but why would anyone want to break the film’s trickster-god magic by analyzing it to death?

Scorsese and editors Damian Rodriguez and David Tedeschi use the you-are-there performances as handholds of truth in a sea of fairy tales and fish stories. Sometimes the con is obvious: When, for example, former lovers Dylan and Baez share a moment that’s ripe with gentle romantic subtext, it feels oddly staged, as though the artists were tweaking the gossip-mongers. Of course, given the power of Photoshop and modern digital-effects trickery, one should probably regard all the “obvious” vintage material with a skeptical eye. Whenever Ginsberg appears, one starts to wonder if one is seeing the real deal, or perhaps just comedian David Cross’ uncanny mimicry with faux-16mm embellishments. Cross previously portrayed the poet in Todd Haynes’ 2007 Dylan “anti-biopic” I’m Not There, which similarly understood the centrality of storytelling (read: lies) to the musician’s identity and appeal. Rolling Thunder isn’t remotely as audacious as Haynes’ feature, but within the limits of an ostensible “straight” concert film, Scorsese has crafted an irresistible mosaic of truth and myth. After all, who are you going to believe? Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan or your own lying eyes?

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Non-Fiction'.
June 13, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Communication Breakdown

2018 / France / 108 min. / Dir. by Olivier Assayas / Opened in select cities on May 3, 2019; locally on June 14, 2019

Olivier Assayas’ last film, Personal Shopper (2016), proposed that modern technology could be a possible medium for the living to communicate with the dead. One part haute couture murder mystery and one part grief tone poem, the beguiling ghost story devoted its entire second act to a text-message conversation between the protagonist and someone who claimed to have passed into the realm of the departed. As un-thrilling as that may sound, it nevertheless functions as one of the more fascinating cinematic realizations of how humans interact digitally within their analog realities – a notion that’s commonly only hinted at in other films through obnoxious superimpositions of text messages over shots of the senders and receivers.

Personal Shopper wasn’t the first time Assayas dove into digital life. In his previous noir thrillers Demonlover (2002) and Boarding Gate (2007), Assayas often denigrated technology, fingering innovation as the impetus for the widening wealth gap in an increasingly globalized world, while still fetishistically deploying new computer-generated cinematic techniques himself. That very tension is the great invention in those undervalued gems, but the formula has been reversed in his latest feature, Non-Fiction, in which the digital is foregrounded only indirectly – there are no iMac or iPhone screens showcased here – as it wreaks havoc among the French bourgeois and their romantic and professional entanglements.

Also unlike those aforementioned films, Non-Fiction is not what one would call an impressive display of genre acrobatics. If anything, Assayas is working in a Rohmerian romantic comedy of manners mode, and the result is arguably the director’s most modestly scaled and minor-key film. After the raging rivers of emotional currents in Summer Hours (2008) and Personal Shopper, the historical documents of Après Mai (2012) and Carlos (2010), and the grand persona-swap meta-fiction of Clouds of Sils Maria (2014), Non-Fiction goes down like a hastily thrown-together trifle, its deeply rich layers alternating with light and airy ones.

Alain Danielson (Guillaume Canet), a suave and seductive book editor, sits with his longtime client and friend, Léonard Spiegel (Vincent Macaigne), an author whose reputation and sales have declined over the previous decade. After an extended meal in which the two dally in the media marketplace of ideas, Alain recommends that the infamous playboy writer return to his older, pulpier material instead of the thinly veiled autobiographical manuscript he’s just completed. Léonard proudly scoffs at Alain’s sly, repeated suggestions until all the beating around the bush forces the author to just flatly ask if his long-time publisher plans on releasing the new book. Alain, shocked at the naked display, quips, “No, I’m not. I thought you understood.”

This first “chapter” provides a loose key to understanding the occasionally obtuse discourse about “How We Live Now” that makes up the bulk of Non-Fiction. Protracted exchanges about the woes of social media and handheld devices, physical vs. digital media, the value of criticism and art, and the world’s political and cultural climate seem to point to Assayas picking low-hanging think-piece fruit. However, the surface-level evaluations contained within are largely acts of obfuscation by the director and his players. What’s harbored in their messages is a yearning for intimacy and authenticity that, as time passes, increasingly rise to the surface in genuine displays of human connection and expression.

The film’s French title, Double vies (“double lives”), is possibly a more apt signaling of the dialectical conversations and compartmentalization (or lack thereof) of the characters’ relationships. Within the sexual carousel – Non-Fiction is, in its essence, a contemporary version of Max Ophüls’ La ronde (1950), albeit one trapped within the social milieu of the media elite – each participant has their own double-self. Alain’s clandestine rendezvous with his publisher’s young digital-marketing savant, Laure (Christa Théret), puts his career and marriage in jeopardy. He’s married to actress Selena (the always-sublime Juliette Binoche), who, on top of her own long-standing secret affair with Léonard, is struggling with her public and personal personas. Her prominence as the lead of a popular television show only exacerbates the issue; the question of whether her character is a police officer or in crisis management adds yet another complicated layer to her in-flux existence.

That running gag is bested only by a story about lewd acts performed during a screening of Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2010) – or was it Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)? This episode is featured in Léonard’s new novel, which is itself a quasi-confession about his own surreptitious past. His wife, political consultant Valérie (Nora Hamzawi), seems to be the only unbreakable link in this tangled chain, acting as an audience surrogate who observes the human foibles on display. Even in the film’s last act, a breezy weekend-in-the-country double date for the two main couples that features a silly Ocean’s 12 (2004)-style meta-moment, Valérie is the gracious and understanding force – and a signifier that Assayas is ultimately optimistic about the state of human connection.

The interconnectivity of the world that the characters so often deconstruct is found not only in the complex web of their personal lives, but also in Assayas’ relatively unassuming visuals. The director keeps his camera fluid and roving throughout the Parisian cafes and expensively decorated apartments, as if tracking the dissemination of information and personal disclosure between the nodes of the human network here. Even when his script spends pages on somewhat staid discourse, Assayas is keen to liven up this minor entry in his filmography, allowing even more casual viewers to peel back the many layers of Non-Fiction.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Shadow'.
June 12, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Not a Soul to Tell Our Troubles To

2018 / 116 min. / China / Dir. by Zhang Yimou / Opened in select cities on May 3, 2019; locally on May 31, 2019

Chinese director Zhang Yimou is a prolific, multi-genre filmmaker, but among mainstream Western viewers, he is likely best known for his luscious, pseudo-historical wuxia action epics, such as Hero (2002), House of Flying Daggers (2004), and Curse of the Golden Flower (2006). Although his films are keenly attuned to the raw cinematic bliss of, say, a sumptuously staged, slow-motion sword duel, Zhang has always been too besotted with grand storytelling to deliver “mere” genre exercises. Consistent with the Chinese literary form from which they are derived, his wuxia films are dense and flavorful things, suffused with romance, tragedy, intrigue, and the heightened yet intricate drama of personal and national honor. (Perhaps tellingly, Zhang’s attempt at a Hollywood-style action-fantasy, 2016’s The Great Wall, is a tedious clunker, distinguished by little but its bold production design.)

Zhang’s deliriously stylish (and seriously grim) new feature, Shadow, is another film in the wuxia tradition, but in this instance the director has literally drained the color from his fantastical tale. Desaturating a film’s palette into grayish-brown murk is now an unfortunately ubiquitous post-production technique in American blockbusters, but Zhang gives it new life by building his feature’s entire aesthetic around it. Although it was not shot in black-and-white, Shadow is virtually monochromatic in its final form, like a bracing, modernist production of some canonical opera or ballet. The film’s sets, props, and costumes are all rendered in waterlogged hues of charcoal, nickel, and dirty white, evoking the ink-wash style of traditional Chinese painting. Only the actors’ skin and the copious gouts of wine-dark blood disrupt the film’s severe, ashen palette.

It’s a fitting choice: Shadow is one of the bleakest wuxia films in memory, often leaning towards the gory, Shakespearean cruelty of a Japanese samurai feature. Akira Kurosawa’s brutal Macbeth retelling, Throne of Blood (1957), and Takashi Miike’s mud-spattered remake of 13 Assassins (2010) stand out as likely touchstones, but Shadow never feels like a Chinese riff on another cinematic genre. It remains a wuxia epic in its bones, one in which a Taoism-informed struggle over identity plays out in the context of palace skullduggery, vengeful duels, and a preposterous street-to-street epic battle in the pouring rain. 

Although it ostensibly takes place during the Three Kingdoms period of the third century, B.C., Shadow is effectively set in an anachronistic “Long Ago” China. Following their military victory over a common enemy, the rival kingdoms of Pei and Yang have settled into a tense and lopsided postwar alliance. Once a part of Pei territory, the city of Jing is now under the control of the feared Commander Yang Cang (Hu Jun) and his forces. This occupation chafes many of Pei’s leaders, but not its haughty and capricious king, Pei Liang (Ryan Zheng), who is so smug about forging an alliance with Yang that he’s composed an epic poem about it, decorating his throne room with hand-painted scrolls of verse. The king’s complacency isn’t shared by his chief military commander, the stoic Zi Yu (Deng Chao), who has recently – and without royal permission – challenged Yang Cang to a duel, with Jing City itself as the stakes.

When the film opens, the king is dressing down Zi Yu for this reckless act of provocation, while the commander’s devoted wife Xiao Ai (Sun Li) and the king’s headstrong sister Qing Pen (Guan Xiaotong) look on in (mostly) mute protest. There’s a queer tension running through this confrontation, and it comes to a head when the king rather perplexingly commands Zi Yu and Xiao Ai to play one of their legendary zither duets. Both husband and wife beg off in deference to oaths they’ve sworn, and soon the audience is clued in on the reason for all the anxious glances. “Zi Yu” is, in fact, a double named Jing Zhou, a lookalike groomed since childhood to misdirect assassins and even take the commander’s place should the need arise. The real Zi Yu (Deng again) skulks in a secret subterannean chamber, ocassionally creeping about inside the palace walls to spy on the court. After sustaining a grievous wound from Yang Cang’s guandao a year ago, Zi Yu fell into ill health, and he has since retreated from the public eye, allowing Jing Zhou to assume his place in court. (Unlike the musically virtuosic Zi Yu, Jing Zhou is a novice at the zither; hence the nervous excuses when the king orders him to perform.)

Zi Yu's wife Xiao Ai is in on this elaborate deception, which takes on a new urgency as the mortally injured commander grows closer to death. He regards Jing's upcoming duel with Yang Cang as his revenge by proxy, although the plan becomes complicated by numerous factors. The king’s anger at “Zi Yu” over the unsanctioned challenge is one hurdle, as the monarch punishes the commander by stripping him of his rank and status. There’s also the matter of an oracle’s prophecy, which stipulates that the seventh straight day of rain is the opportune time for an attack on Jing City. Why this might be salient is never fully elucidated, but no matter: The prediction is there simply to provide a deadline for the film's action. While the kingdom is pummeled by unrelenting downpours, Zi Yu subjects Jing to a brutal regime of training exercises, in the hopes of working out a winning strategy for use against the mighty Yang Cang. Meanwhile, Jing Zhou recruits a disgraced military officer (Wang Qianyuan) and a horde of ragged forest bandits for an audacious Plan B. Qing Ping seethes as the king and his chief administrator (Wang Jingchun) conspire to marry her off to Yang Cang’s arrogant son (Wu Lei). And Xiao Ai is befuddled by her emergent affection for Jing Zhou, whose decency and hunky vulnerability contrast with her real husband’s increasing physical infirmity and wild-eyed, egomaniacal scheming.

It’s standard wuxia stuff, for the most part: bold-stroke conflicts and big emotional beats, as expressed through the somewhat convoluted lens of courtly politics in a never-was ancient China. The screenplay by Zhang and Li Wei is vague on some aspects of the backstory – Why is Jing City so vital to Pei’s national pride? – but all the viewer really needs to know is that wresting the city from its Yang occupiers is Zi Yu’s all-consuming ambition. And Jing Zhou’s as well, for once the city is retaken, the commander will release his common-born double from his obligations, permitting him to return to the humble house where his aged, blind mother still lives.

Zhang adds a layer of thematic complexity to Shadow’s straightforward stakes via Taoist motifs, most conspicuously the enormous taijitu (“yin yang” symbol) that adorns the rain-slicked stone floor of Zi Yu and Jing Zhou's sparring chamber. Complementary and oppositional forces – light and dark, male and female, strength and grace – run through the story, even finding expression in the martial-arts styles used by the characters. (The film mines droll humor from a swishy, “feminine” weapon style involving a parasol, before revealing its unexpected lethality.)

Despite these stark elements, the ever-present subtext of Shadow is that nothing about this scenario is black-and-white: The film images themselves are composed of a stunning gradient of grays, reflecting the ambiguous moral and philosophical dilemmas that the characters confront. Although it is embellished with superheroic feats of martial prowess, Zhang’s feature highlights that the savagery of the world is natural and human in origin, not supernatural. The pitch-black, assaultive shadows of the German Expressionists don’t fit here, nor does the haunted gloom of the gothic, with its sharp good-vs.-evil dichotomies. This is a film of natural and industrial grays – storms and soot, slate and steel – befitting a story in which the characters must contend with pounding rain and flying blades.

Twinnings and reversals also abound. Zi Yu mockingly calls Jing his “shadow,” but it’s the haggard commander who is beginning to resemble a shade – shuffling unseen through the palace as if half ghost, while the rot from his festering wound courses through his veins like black bile. For his part, Jing Zhou is obliged to confront his own hollowness, as the mission he’s trained for his entire life reaches its do-or-die conclusion. Zhang rather cunningly turns his protagonist’s tabula rasa blandness – a common flaw in action epics of this sort – into a source of angst, lending an almost existential weight to Jing’s tribulations. (Without Zi Yu, who the hell is he?)

Real-life spouses Deng and Sun do a splendid job of suggesting the conflicted longing for connection that throbs beneath their characters’ all-business subterfuge and Confucian propriety. Deng’s Jing Zhou gallantly departs the marital bed every evening to sleep on the floor in an adjacent chamber, and the officious yet intimate way he performs this nightly ritual – and the careful way that Sun’s Xiao Ai watches him – elegantly signals that their relationship status has shifted to “It’s Complicated.” Zi Yu, meanwhile, is a more exaggerated figure, limping about on scrawny legs that grow ever more unsteady, all while sliding into madness with a mirthless cackle. (He nimbleness never seems diminished, however, when he is wielding his bamboo staff in the training yard.) With death looming over him, Zi seems eager to inflict suffering on everyone around him, especially Jing Zhou. In this way, the dying commander betrays the extent to which his supposedly single-minded plan for vengeance has been tainted by resentment for his handsome, able-bodied double.

Shadow is an undeniably gorgeous feature, its monochromatic palette paradoxically opening creative avenues for Zhang, cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding, and production designer Horace Ma. The costumes, supervised by Li Meng, are a notable standout: Straying deliberately into an ahistorical modern sensibility, the silk robes worn by the characters often seem to have been tie-dyed in Rorschach patterns. Still, for all the film’s startling set-pieces and memorable touches – from a bizarre, tumbling stampede of bladed umbrellas to the way that Zi Yu’s long hair constantly fidgets in the breeze – its visuals don’t have the evocative potency of those in Zhang’s full-color epics. It might be an appropriate choice for the film’s mood and themes, but the de facto black-and-white look pales (pun intended) when compared to, say, the eye-popping autumnal forest duel in the director’s masterpiece, Hero.

That said, as a standalone and often inspired slice of lavish storytelling – one in which the double-crosses and fake-outs pile up quickly in the film's blood-drenched final stretch – Shadow has few flaws worth quibbling over. Zhang remains one of the living masters of the form, and even his “lesser” wuxia features are wildly extravagant and enthralling cinematic objects, if only because so few filmmakers are crafting anything quite so ambitious and distinctive. If Shadow feels a little chillier, darker, and more ruthless than the director’s international hits from the 2000s, it’s a shift that is unambiguously reflected in every inch of the film’s form. That kind of ground-up artistic diligence is a rare and marvelous thing indeed.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt