A still from 'Avengers: Endgame'.
April 25, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Nothing Ends. Nothing *Ever* Ends.

2019 / USA / 181 min. / Dir. by Anthony and Joe Russo / Opens in wide release on Apr. 26, 2019

Perhaps more than any Hollywood blockbuster from the past 50 years, Avengers: Endgame could accurately be described as a “critic-proof” pop-cultural event. In the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter what this writer or any other film critic thinks of the 22nd feature that unfolds in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). Endgame will make several gazillion dollars at the box office, and it will undoubtedly occupy the geeky pop-cultural zeitgeist for the better part of the year (reluctantly sharing the spotlight with the final season of Game of Thrones). It is a virtually guaranteed hit, not only due to legions of devoted Marvel fans, but also because of the studio’s commitment to a sturdy formula and strict quality control. The MCU includes its share of middling entries, but unlike corporate paterfamilias Disney, Marvel Studios hasn’t (to date) produced film that is both a critical and financial dud (e.g., John Carter [2012]; The Lone Ranger [2013]; A Wrinkle in Time [2018]).

However, the MCU’s seeming imperviousness to traditional critical assessment goes beyond mere assembly-line precision and the sort of “built-in audience” that is the envy of other Hollywood studios. The specific form that the MCU franchise has assumed – a narratively cohesive sequence of feature films weaving together dozens of characters and plots in a shared universe – is something unprecedented in cinema. The James Bond series is the only studio feature franchise that comes remotely close to the MCU in terms of total running time, and the 007 films are a different beast altogether (one hero played by different actors, repeated soft and hard reboots, and an overall disregard for continuity.) As for Godzilla, the King of Monsters remains a durable and adaptable metaphor, but the continuity of the 30-odd features produced by Toho alone is a unresolvable snarl, to put it mildly.

Marvel Studios films are cinematic features in the technical sense, in that they are two- or three-hour slices of entertainment designed for presentation on large screens in public theaters. Yet MCU films are consumed by viewers in a manner that resembles the serial short films that were ubiquitous at Saturday matinees in the first half of the 20th century. Like those serials, the MCU films constitute a long-form story designed to be watched in chunks, with each chapter setting the stage for the next. However, unlike the popular silent- and sound-era serials of yesteryear – Fantômas (1913), The Perils of Pauline (1914), Flash Gordon (1936), Dick Tracy (1937) – each of which comprises a discrete multi-part story, there are no built-in endpoints in the MCU, other than the expiration dates on the stars’ contracts. Nor does the franchise possess the season-oriented framework of episodic television, the other medium from which the MCU features draw some structural influence.

The traditional approach employed by critics – evaluating each feature film as a stand-alone object – is foiled to some extent by the MCU’s sheer sprawl. How does one tackle a 50-plus-hour story? Should it be reviewed film by film? By series, e.g., treat all the Iron Man films as a self-contained arc? As one mammoth work of serialized storytelling? Should one factor in MCU-integrated or -adjacent fare from other media, such as ABC’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. television series (2013-19), which some fans contend is essential to the “experience”? Given these complications, not to mention how thoroughly Marvel sands down the auteurist inclinations of even its most eccentric and distinctive directors in favor of the studio’s house style, conventional film critics could be forgiven for throwing up their hands.

Perhaps reviewing the MCU and other emergent shared-universe franchises is a task better suited to a new species of critic, one dedicated to dissecting and evaluating these multimedia behemoths. Such specialization is arguably warranted, given that the form is obviously here to stay for the foreseeable future. Marvel Studios’ mastermind producer Kevin Feige speaks of discrete “phases” and whatnot, but the obvious appeal of the MCU to Disney executives and shareholders is that the series theoretically stretches out into infinity. It’s a bottomless well of intellectual-property and box-office gold – at least until the public sours on the franchise after a few abject failures and/or Marvel has given every fifth- and sixth-string superhero their own $150 million epic.

A meta-awareness of the MCU’s potentially staggering lifespan as a blockbuster-generation device is one of the reasons that Avengers: Endgame is such an intriguing departure, in its modest way. The film is less a climax than a self-reflexive summation of everything that’s come before. Although this results in some self-congratulatory backslapping and eye-rolling fan-service, it also finds the filmmakers – directors Anthony and Joe Russo and screenwriters Christopher Markas and Stephen McFeely, MCU veterans all – in an unusually reflective mood. That self-conscious pensiveness is an unexpected angle in a film that practically proclaims itself the Blockbuster to End All Blockbusters, featuring one of the most sprawling multi-character CGI battles ever put to film (er, pixels).

Last year’s Avengers: Infinity War discovered some welcome novelty by distorting the Marvel formula, ruthlessly embracing failure and loss in a way that PG-13 Hollywood fare rarely dares. (Never mind the unimaginative naysayers who snark that loss never matters in the reset-prone superhero sub-genre. They could stand to take Orson Welles’ line from The Big Brass Ring to heart: Happy endings depend on where you stop the story.) Endgame proceeds along this same forlorn thematic line, but it also reckons with the past in a manner that the breathless, overstuffed Infinity War never could. The previous Avengers feature was too busy simply fulfilling the promise of 10 years’ worth of storytelling, too preoccupied with its status as a culminating pop-cultural moment. At just over three hours, Endgame is an equally overstuffed film, but it takes the time to linger (often indulgently) on what has come before, both in the narrative and thematic sense. It makes for a sharp contrast with all the other MCU films and their endless table-setting and teasing. (“The Avengers Will Return!”) It’s not incidental that Endgame lacks those coy MCU calling cards, the mid-credits and post-credits scenes. In a franchise that often resembles one exhausting run-on sentence, Avengers: Endgame feels like a welcome period (or at least a semicolon).

Endgame is certainly more narratively stimulating than its predecessor, which for all its sturm und drang was essentially one marathon act about the Avengers’ unsuccessful efforts to stop the Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) from assembling the Infinity Stones. Those uber-MacGuffins allowed Thanos – a sort of genocidal eco-terrorist – to snuff out half the life in a universe with a snap of his fingers, erasing trillions of creatures in a puff of ash and thereby relaxing pressure on the cosmos’ finite resources. Never mind that the scheme didn’t make much sense, ecologically speaking; the upshot was a universe-wide apocalypse, albeit one closer to the existential shell shock of The Leftovers (2014-17) than any nuclear-holocaust or killer-asteroid scenario. Endgame picks up a few weeks after Thanos’ snap, with the surviving Avengers – the six OG members, conveniently enough, plus a few B-listers – still reeling from the “Vanishing,” as it’s been termed. With the freshly arrived galactic heavy-hitter Carol Danvers, aka Captain Marvel (Brie Larson) in their corner, the team sets about tracking down Thanos’ current location, seizing the Infinity Stones from him, and (hopefully) using their power to undo the Mad Titan’s cosmic culling.

That’s about all that can be disclosed about the new film’s plot without delving into some major story swerves – and yet that summary still comprises only the first 20 minutes or so of the feature. Disney’s customary sweaty plea for spoiler-free critical treatment is a bit more defensible than usual in the case of Endgame. This is less about the unexpected guest appearances and inevitable character deaths than it is about the exact shape that the story assumes. While many of the individual elements in the film are well worn – a “putting the team back together” sequence; a timey-wimey quantum-flavored heist; an epic, all-hands-on-deck climactic rumble – Endgame assembles them in a way that feels relatively fresh and unpredictable, especially given the usual consistency of the MCU’s narrative beats. It’s perhaps the first Marvel film where it isn’t obvious where it’s all going at any given moment, and that sense of modest unruliness in the story is a pleasing change. It’s also the rare superhero film where the villain sniffs out the heroes’ plan relatively quickly and works to undermine them, adding some much-needed dramatic tension to a story that might have otherwise played out like a science experiment designed to blithely undo the events of Infinity War.

While Endgame takes pains to touch base with virtually every surviving character in the franchise, Marvel aficionados will be unsurprised that the “core trio” of Tony Stark aka Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Steve Rogers aka Captain America (Chris Evans), and Thor (Chris Hemsworth) are at the center of the new film’s story. There are plenty of character arcs to go around, however. Clint Barton aka Hawkeye, who was notably MIA during Infinity War, gets a hefty helping of screen time this outing, but the most surprising face pushed to the foreground in Endgame is Thanos’ cybernetic daughter, Nebula (Karen Gillan). Although all the Avengers (and affiliated superfolk) have undergone notable internal struggles and realignments, no one has changed quite as much as Nebula, who has been performing a slow-motion heel-turn from villain to hero since she first appeared in Guardians of the Galaxy (2014). Given its thematic focus on history, warts and all, Endgame makes a fitting showcase for the MCU character who likely harbors the deepest regrets. Nebula is dogged by a thick, clinging shame about her past mistakes, not to mention a lingering awkwardness in accepting the amity and purpose that a surrogate super-family can provide. The events of Endgame force her to look straight into the chasm between who she was and who she has become.

Most of the customary criticisms that have applied to all MCU features also apply to Endgame: competent but unmemorable action sequences; over-reliance on quippy, faux-improv humor; and a propensity for switching up the fantasy and science-fiction rules whenever it’s convenient to the plot. (To be fair, the latter is one of the original sins of superhero comics.) More than any other Avengers film – or even the Avengers-film-in-all-but-name, Captain America: Civil WarEndgame is prone to silly splash-page posing. Too often, the Russos are focused on eliciting easy cheers from the audience, to the detriment of any sort of spatial or narrative sense. At this late stage in the financial (if not artistic) dominance of the MCU over blockbuster cinema, these flaws are perhaps permanent features of the franchise. It’s become as tedious to remark on them as it is to endure them.

What’ refreshing and even kind of admirable about Endgame is how warmly and earnestly it embraces the geeky adoration of MCU devotees. Endgame is flush with callbacks and Easter eggs and droll echoes of past events. (Back to the Future Part II [1989] is explicitly derided for its nonsense physics, then cheekily evoked in the film’s restaging of familiar franchise scenes.) It’s a tightrope walk, but these moments (mostly) come off as joyous, clever hat tips rather than flattering, audience-directed winks. For once, it doesn’t feel like Marvel is doling out a morsel of entertainment while simultaneously teasing the viewer with how awesome the next morsel is going to be. Despite the film’s melancholic tone, the tear-jerking losses, and all the Wagnerian sci-fi spectacle, Endgame feels first and foremost like a big-hearted celebration of the MCU. Look closely and one can discern hints of the Marvel offerings to come – at least one imminent Disney+ TV series is seeded in the film’s epilogue – but the Russos consistently prioritize the past and present over the future. The final half-hour of Endgame feels like a long, grateful exhale after 22 films of hectic stuff, and credit to Marvel for recognizing that its fanbase deserves a gratifying, bittersweet coda to reflect on what a long, strange trip it’s been.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'High Life'.
April 25, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Space Oddity

2018 / UK, France, Germany, Poland, USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Claire Denis / Opened in select cities on Apr. 12, 2019; locally on Apr. 19, 2019

There are bucket-loads of bodily fluids – blood, semen, breast milk – in High Life, including some inexplicable substances that come pouring out of the “Fuck Box” after its use by a crew member of a spaceship prison. That’s probably enough information to sharply divide potential viewers into either “Ew, no” or “Yes, please” camps, but it’s also notable that this beguiling trip into a (literal) black hole comes from Claire Denis, a filmmaker whose 30-odd-year output has produced at least a couple of masterpieces – Beau Travail (2000) and 35 Shots of Rum (2008) – and several films that only fall slightly short of such high praise – including Trouble Every Day (2001), Friday Night (2002), and Let the Sunshine In (2018).

Although the wonky and ponderous High Life is Denis on a large scale – with its space-odyssey milieu, an all-English-speaking cast, marquee star of Robert Pattinson, and backing from distributor A24 – it is nevertheless of a piece with the French master’s body of work. Her elliptically structured films – crafted from elegantly rendered pieces sewn together with emotional rather traditionally narrative purpose – often suspend viewers in a state of confused awe until everything miraculously clicks, often to devastating ends. Within these halls of mirrors, Denis is concerned with colonialism, sex, violence, abuses of power, and the experiences of the othered, but these are all explored in the context of her primary foci: desire, intimacy, and the great gulf that often exists between them.

In this regard, High Life is a compendium of Denis’ predominant working modes and themes. Structurally, the film is built around three shifting narrative modules. The first centers on Monte (Pattinson), the lone adult passenger of claustrophobic spaceship with an interior that bears the marks of a turbulent past. Monte’s only company is a baby whom he’s raising with the help of an automated computer teaching it language (imagine HAL 9000 repeating “da da” ad nauseam) and the ship’s organic garden. (The natural and the oppressive manmade commingle throughout the film.) High Life’s aesthetic values also extend the metaphor. The ship’s minimal, lo-fi design reads Silent Running (1972) by way of Nicolas Winding Refn’s neon-lit grunginess. Meanwhile, French special-effects house BUF (David Lynch’s Twin Peaks: The Return [2017]) handles the realization of warping into black holes (and whatever happens in that Fuck Box) with its purposefully handmade-looking digital effects.

This largely dialogue-free section of High Life resembles the best and most patient filmmaking of Denis’ career, including a title card that promises an unfortunately unfulfilled wit. The second narrative module makes up the bulk of the film and is less successful. Although the filmmaker would likely shudder at the thought of this kind of pat focalization – she’s stated she thinks the most interesting parts of films lie within the cuts –  it’s ostensibly a flashback to the ship’s origins, purpose, and violent downfall. Monte is a just one of the inmates of this co-ed prison ship, which was blasted into space with two lofty missions in mind: harvest the energy of a black hole in order to save Earth, and determine if procreating in space is a possible alternative. All of the passengers are criminals, and the ship becomes a hotbox of mounting interpersonal tension between already volatile and hopeless individuals.

Unlike Denis’ other stab at genre revisionism with the spare and melancholy vampire tragedy Trouble Every Day, these sections of High Life are prone to narrative hand-holding and overexplaining, lacking her trademark elegance and nuance. Chief among the issues with this particular “act” is its superficiality, especially with supporting characters lacking depth and acting simply as pretty ciphers (Agata Buzek as Chandra and André Benjamin as Tcherny, for example). This even largely applies to Boyse (the always otherworldly Mia Goth), Monte’s would-be romantic foil. Even after her agency is completely stripped away and her futile attempt to regain it goes awry, the character mostly just represents thematization of the abuses of power. Elsewhere, the superficial is just as prevalent: Boyse’s playful moment with the gravity-defying glove from her space suit should be one of classically Malickian wonder, but it instead resembles the surface preciousness that characterizes Malick’s recent works.

This can likely be blamed on these fresh-faced performers being unattuned to the Denis universe, the script – by the director, her frequent collaborator Jean-Pol Fargeau, and newbie Geoff Cox – lacking the foundation necessary for subtlety, or a combination of both. Pattinson, easily one of the best of his generation, transcends the material with the right modulations of boredom, grace, regret, and guilt. He’s matched by Juliette Binoche (returning just a year after her remarkable turn in Let the Sunshine In) as his antagonist, Dibbs, the hypersexual “mad scientist” hellbent on accomplishing “Mission B” by any means necessary. More so than the other performers, Binoche carries Denis’ reduction of human behavior into animal urges both carnal and carnivorous – her bucking-bronco ride in the aforementioned Fuck Box is among the most presentational scenes in any Denis film, for better or worse.

Thankfully, the third module forgoes the banal provocations of the second, warping into a contemplative existentialism that nearly erases (but cannot fully justify) any qualms about what precedes it. Here, Monte attempts to carry out “Mission A” with the help of a femme fatale figure – a film noir archetype Denis says was partially the impetus for High Life. The conflation of heady science fiction with hard-nosed noir helps to realize the portrait of human fatalism throughout, but the film’s final mind- and time-bending beats beg whether humanity can transcend its innate navel-gazing in an attempt to fully understand its role in the cosmos. If the final question Denis proposes is worthy of exploration – whether of the self, others, or beyond – she’s proven that she’s the one to take that journey with, no matter how bumpy it might be.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Curse of La Llorona'.
April 18, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

From This Moment On, I’ll Be Crying, Crying, Crying

2019 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Michael Chaves / Opens in wide release on April 19, 2019

The Mexican-accented ghost story The Curse of La Llorona is the latest horror feature cranked out by Warner-owned New Line Cinema under director-producer James Wan's The Conjuring branding. Like viritually all such films, it takes pains to underline its connections to the Conjuring-verse (ugh), both in its marketing materials and in the text of the film itself. Unfortunately, Wan's franchise has set the bar so spectacularly low in terms of novelty, pathos, and genuine chills that a modestly moody and well-executed entry like David F. Sandberg’s Anabelle: Creation (2017) looks like a soaring achievement. Last year, Corin Hardy’s listless, illogical The Nun did nothing to redeem the series, but at least that film possessed a heightened design sensibility perched somewhere between classic Universal horror and the vivid lunacy of Mario Bava.

When compared to The Nun and its misty graveyards and cobwebby catacombs, director Michael Chaves’ The Curse of La Llorona has all the personality of a wadded-up snotty tissue. It’s a case study in how ruinously bland and boring 21st-century studio horror can be while still doing the bare minimum to function as a story. Granted: Curse isn’t technically incompetent or laughably nonsensical in the manner of so many contemporary low-budget, direct-to-streaming horror offerings. The visual-effects work is solid for a lesser Conjuring-verse entry; the performers wring some believable emotions out of the thuddingly obvious character beats; and the story evades the standard Screenwriting 101 pitfalls. It’s not amateurish – just dull, plodding, and criminally un-scary. The fact that this is the first Latinx-flavored horror feature in the franchise just makes Curse’s failings sting that much more acutely. If this is what representation looks like, Latinx horror fans could be forgiven for taking a hard pass.

Things start off poorly from the jump, with a confusing prologue allegedly set in 17th-century Mexico, which looks a hell of a lot like 19th-century Mexico. Dreamy flashes of a father, mother, and two young sons happily cavorting in the grass are abruptly interrupted by a scene of horror: One of the boys witnesses a white-veiled figure violently drowning a child in a creek. (The folk-tale provenance of this opening scene is eventually explained by an Exposition Character, but their account doesn’t remotely jibe with what’s shown on screen, and in fact retroactively makes it more perplexing.) Flash-forward to 1970s Los Angeles – and the non-diegetic thump of “Superfly,” because the ’70s! – where the viewer is introduced to middle-aged widow Anna Tate-Garcia (Linda Cardellini) and her young children, Chris (Roman Christou) and Samantha (Jaynee-Lynne Kinchem). Anna’s late husband was a Latino LAPD officer slain in the line of duty, and his presence continues to haunt their household, at least in the figurative sense.

Anna works for a child-protection-services agency, and in that capacity, she is dispatched to the home of Patricia Alvarez (Patricia Velasquez), whose two young sons haven’t appeared at school in several days. Anna has encountered Patricia before, but she is shocked by what she finds in the woman’s apartment: the frightened Alvarez boys, padlocked into a closet that is covered with scribbled mystical wards against the evil eye. Patricia attacks Anna when she attempts to extricate the boys, and that assault plus the child-neglect charges land the former woman in jail. The boys – who insist that an ambiguous “She” is responsible for the ugly burns on their arms – are placed into the custody of a Catholic charity for the night.

A few hours later, the Alvarez boys are dead, inexplicably turning up drowned in the shallow, murky water of the Los Angeles River channel. Even though it’s the middle of the night, Anna rushes to the scene in disbelief, leaving her bleary-eyed kids in the car while she confers with the police. (Perhaps not an ideal decision, but half a point to Curse for depicting how logistically difficult it can be to be a working single parent.) It’s at this point that Chris hears what sounds like sobbing coming from an overgrown passageway, and it’s there that he first catches a glimpse of a spectral, weeping woman (Marisol Ramirez). This wraith terrorizes Chris with the sort of aimless funhouse tactics that typify these films, only to vanish when his mother returns to the car. Over the course of the ensuing days, this tearful apparition – which a venomous, glassy-eyed Patricia calls “La Llorona” – appears to both Chris and Samantha on several occasions, frightening the bejeezus out of them and leaving burns on their bodies. Then Anna herself encounters the entity in all its screeching glory, and from there the story proceeds along the well-worn path laid out by The Conjuring and its ilk. (Is there a third-act exorcism set piece that concludes in a gout of murky digital effects? You bet there is!)

Curse doesn’t have much going for it beyond the ostensible distinctiveness of its Mexican mythos. Not lived-in period detail, certainly, of which there is little beyond Cardellini’s feathered hair and tin-foil TV dinners. Not the grounded specificity of its setting, given how shallowly the film regards its multicultural Southern California milieu. (Also: In what universe is it always raining in LA?) La Llorona herself is a ghost in the tragic gothic mold: Having murdered her own offspring in an appallingly misdirected act of retaliation against her adulterous husband, she wanders in search of “replacement” niños y niñas. Unfortunately, the Conjuring-verse – Curse included – tends to treat its specters, even the ones with vivid backstories, as little more than animatronic haunted-house props. They spring out at regular intervals, shriek horrifically, and toss objects and people around with their telekinetic powers, all without any discernible goal. It’s industrial scare-generation that’s entirely audience-directed, and although ancillary characters may show up to elucidate the motivations of the unquiet dead, as Tony Amendola’s priest does here, it never enriches the story. It’s just a cursory excuse for the same old tired theatrics.

Even the film’s basis in real-world Mexican and Mexican-American folk traditions – the only mildly novel thing about Curse by a substantial margin – doesn’t amount to much in practice. There’s no substantive engagement with real-world Latinx family or religious life, or any suggestion as to how Anna’s mixed-heritage children think about their identity, if they think about it at all. The only cultural insight the film seems to proffer is the suspect generalization that Latinx people are highly religious and/or spiritual, in contrast to faithless gringos like Anna. (There’s that dose of The Conjuring’s smug, idiot-simple religious apologetics.) Curse’s scripters – the Five Feet Apart writing team of Mikki Daughty and Tobias Iaconis – seem to think that sprinkling a dash of un-subtitled Spanish into the dialogue and swapping post-Exorcist Jesuit trappings for syncretic Mexican ones makes the film “diverse.” (Coco, this is not.) At least when Raymond Cruz’s curandero finally shows up to battle La Llorona, he brings a little deadpan levity to the proceedings. Otherwise, Curse is a thoroughly joyless piece of work – not to mention monotonous and mechanical.

Rating: C- 

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Missing Link'.
April 12, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Some Bigfoots to Fill

2019 / Canada, USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Chris Butler / Opens in wide release on Apr. 12, 2019

The title of Laika Studio’s latest, Missing Link, has at least three meanings. It ostensibly refers to the erudite yet naive Bigfoot character, Mr. Link A.K.A. Susan (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). This furry fellow calls on the charlatan British explorer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), to spirit him away from his hermetic life in the Pacific Northwest to the Himalayan mountains, so that he might join his possible Yeti brethren. However, the title also alludes to the animated adventure’s content and form, bridging the gulf between classic Hollywood action films – via allusions to Gunga Din (1939), John Ford’s Westerns, and the serials that inspired the Indiana Jones films, et al. – and digital-era populist filmmaking.

A more successful meta-meaning lies in the studio’s further integration of their trademark stop-motion technique with the more commonly deployed CGI animation – an inch-by-inch closing of the gap between the uncanny, herky-jerky, old-school style and the more polished, still-developing one. This technological advancement is quite apparent in Missing Link’s gorgeous sights: shimmery and cavernous icescapes; lived-in Victorian-era English architecture and design; a dirt- and mud-caked Western town straight out of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); and (as odd as it may be to say) incredibly lifelike human skin stretched over angular caricatures of faces and bodies.

Unfortunately, the film’s borrowing of tried-and-true, old-fashioned narratives is less successful than these miniature wonders. Laika’s previous outing, the superlative Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), presented a visually inventive and emotionally-resonant fantasy rooted in Japanese myths and folklore. Accordingly, one might anticipate that Missing Link would contain the keen wit, great stakes, and careful character building of the former. It doesn’t, exactly. That’s not to say that it completely lacks these qualities, but the few moments that exhibit them lack the exhilarating originality with which Laika films are often credited.

Missing Link also stands apart from the studio’s previous works in that, while their features are purportedly for kids and families, it’s difficult to imagine that the youngest cohort of viewers will be satiated by this outing’s leisurely pacing, sparse laughs, and lack of a child proxy. With that, it is surprisingly similar to another recent, albeit more revisionist, exploration film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016). While that feature’s fresh take on the genre presented its protagonist on a hamster wheel of obsession, Missing Link eschews any new ideas about the inextricable strands of discovery and colonialism for a more traditional globe-trotting narrative.

Nevertheless, similar beats and characters are present. Much like Lost City’s protagonist, Frost is a foolhardy dilettante scorned by a society of explorers due to his presentational manner and lack of evidence for his proposed discoveries. The cold open presents a bungled attempt at capturing a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, a debacle that results in a near-death experience for the man’s partner – which Frost glibly tosses off as a mere occupational hazard. He then receives an anonymous letter stating the whereabouts of the legendary Sasquatch, prompting him to boast about his planned trip to capture the beast to his main rival, the respected elder Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).

Frost arrives in the States to find that the the letter’s author was the elusive, hairy hominid himself, who wrote to Frost after seeing the Englishman’s exploits plastered on the front pages of newspapers. Frost is surprised to learn that not only is this creature – which he later dubs “Mr. Link” – capable of speech, but he is also a being of great intelligence, save for his inability to grasp sarcasm. (This results in the film’s best comic moments.) After striking a mutually beneficial deal to get Link to the mountains of Central Asia, the two traverse the globe with Link traveling incognito in uncomfortably small gentleman’s attire.

What follows is an episodic journey through various classic genres and their associated locales. A stop in a gunslinger’s saloon results in an all-out bar brawl. Frost and Link heisting a map from the Southwestern U.S. home of the explorer’s former partner’s wife, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), results in her joining their journey. A boat ride across the Atlantic presents a rip-roaring action setpiece with the three confronting a hitman, Willard Stank (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Piggot-Dunceby to eliminate Frost and crew. (Again, who exactly is this for?). Although these episodes often lack purpose other than creatively updating tropes with new tech, each section is still handsomely realized, with direction by Chris Butler of Laika’s ParaNorman (2012) that resembles a less-precious version of Wes Anderson’s ornate dollhouse style, complete with a camera that moves smoothly along the horizontal axis.

The players meet in the denouement, which is set in the fictional paradise Shangri-La from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon (itself adapted twice into adventure yarns in 1937 and 1973). The Yeti overlords reject “redneck cousin” Mr. Link – now going by Susan, after Frost allows him some much-needed autonomy – raising the possibility that the title Missing Link may have yet another meaning about the journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. That notion, although entirely earned through its two leads’ arcs, nevertheless tows the line between touching and trite. With that, the film ultimately fails to transcend to anything beyond its technological achievements, becoming a minor misstep in Laika's nearly unbreakable chain of artistic success.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Diane'.
April 10, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Vivre sa vie

2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Kent Jones / Opened in select cities on Mar. 29, 2019; locally on Apr. 5, 2019

Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a caretaker – not in any professional sense but as an overriding aspect of her identity. The middle-aged New Englander is a star exerting a gravitational pull on the planets that orbit her. Diane’s hospital-bound cousin, Donna (Deirdre O'Connell), has ovarian cancer and requires her companionship. Her wayward son, Brian (Jake Lacy), is drug-addled, unable to perform basic daily functions. Her other friends and family rely on her as much as the patrons of the free church supper where she volunteers weekly. As those bodies gradually spin off their axes and away from Diane, either by gaining their own agency or eventually dying, she experiences a whittling away of her supposed core self. 

Director Kent Jones’ Diane is the antithesis of Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, another recent exploration of a middle-aged woman questioning her existence. While the latter takes a frothy approach to aging through the titular character’s quest for romantic fulfilment, Jones’ narrative-feature debut is spare and melancholy, realizing its protagonist’s dark night of the soul with visual and narrative austerity. Taking equal inspiration from patron saint of cinema Robert Bresson and the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, Diane is an impressive first outing by one of the best living film critics. It’s also a rich and moving character piece, anchored by a masterclass performance from one of the great unsung actors of the past 40 years, Mary Kay Place. 

Much as the sun-drenched Los Angeles setting of Gloria Bell lent that film an appropriately light tone, the brittle Massachusetts winters of Diane reflect the insular, cloistered community that surrounds the eponymous character. For Diane, small-town life is not the oppressive force it is so many other films with similar settings. It’s simply that her seemingly menial existence is all she’s ever known. She exchanges casseroles with a next-door neighbor regularly. She launders Brian’s clothing as a means of checking on him. She plays gin rummy with Donna in her hospital room. She carts her Aunt Mary (Estelle Parsons) around to see Donna and to family dinners. She frequents various down-home buffets with her best friend, Bobbie (comedy legend Andrea Martin). With each cycle of these routines, however, Diane struggles to balance her increasing resentment with her sense of duty. Jones makes this tension easy to sympathize with due to the repetitive structure of the film’s first half, an approach dictated by Diane’s regimen of selfless acts. 

Place, however, creates a fully empathetic entry point into the character’s struggles. The actor got her start in earnest on Norman Lear’s cult soap-opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975-76), and although that television program was short-lived, she’s persisted ever since as a great supporting performer in such diverse films as The Big Chill (1983), Being John Malkovich (1999), and It’s Complicated (2009). Diane is Place’s compendium of the types of roles in which she’s usually cast – doting mother, cheery best friend, or benevolent authority figure – but the character is also a striking opportunity to share an authorial mark on a film through performance. (O’Connell also demonstrates she is capable of the same showcase portrayal.) In the hands of another performer, Jones’ occasionally sedate scripting might have been more obvious, but Place miraculously carries Diane’s lifetime of memories with her, lending nuance to even the humblest of scenes in a small, on-the-surface film. 

That naturalistic approach means that there are thankfully no grandstanding monologues about a life never lived. Rather, each scene is suffused with a reckoning for a past that dictates the present. A family dinner filled with oft-told anecdotes perfectly encapsulates generational inheritance and rifts, and the revelation about Diane’s summer fling with Donna’s boyfriend gently reverberates through the film. Those memories consume Diane while her purpose as a communal anchor fades away. Jones then smartly structures the latter half of the narrative to mirror the perceived exponential compression of time that comes with aging, relying on increasingly elliptical – and sometimes even surreal – passages as Diane grows older. She turns to writing in a journal, capturing her dreams and attempting to reckon with her desolation through poetry: “My shadow is always with me,” she writes.

The Bressonian influence on Diane is clear from the start – the focus on process in the diegesis, the paring down of visual and narrative flourishes, the central figure in an existential and spiritual crisis – but the French master’s recurring theme of human communion with God becomes the main thrust of Diane’s latter half. The church binds Diane’s community, but when Brian, fresh from rehab, joins an oppressively evangelical Christian sect, she begins to doubt her own Christian focus. When she expresses these doubts to a former patron of the free church dinners, he attempts to comfort her: “When you served me, I always felt sanctified.” Diane ultimately becomes about leading a life in service of others, but its abrupt and alienating ending puts a fine point on the futility in giving up complete autonomy for a life of service. How do you value your life’s supposed purpose when all you’re left with is yourself, your memories, and your regret? Diane doesn’t have the answers, but its power lies in its questions. 

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from "Pet Sematary'.
April 4, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day

2019 / USA / 101 min. / Dir. by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer / Opens in wide release on April 5, 2019

[Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the 1983 novel Pet Sematary and its 1989 film adaptation.]

Unhappy endings are hardly a recent phenomenon in horror cinema. No less a film than Night of the Living Dead (1968) boasts one of the bleakest finales of all time. Over the decades, the genre has offered up endings characterized by howling shellshock (The Last House on the Left, 1972; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), disturbing ambiguity (The Shining, 1980; The Thing, 1982) and sadistic fake-outs (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978; A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984). Something definitive shifted in 1999, however, with the one-two punch of The Ring and The Blair Witch Project. Those films offered not just unhappy endings but doom-drenched assertions of Evil’s might, reach, and inexorable triumph. In the 21st century, it’s now the norm for horror films to punch out on a malicious twist, undoing whatever victory the heroes thought they had achieved against the forces of darkness. (Just look at last year’s theatrical horror features: The majority boast endings that range from cryptic to sorrowful to downright pitch-black.)

Outside of the zombocalypse subgenre, few modern horror tales have been able to top the sheer, perverse bleakness that characterizes the final stretch of Pet Sematary. That would be the 1983 novel by Maine’s master of the macabre, Stephen King – as well as the book’s 1989 film adaptation, which boasts a screenplay penned by King himself. Over the decades, the author has generally resisted the darkling allure of unhappy endings. At least in his novels, King tends to favor conclusions where Evil is ultimately vanquished, albeit typically in a manner that entails great sacrifice. (It’s in his short stories that King is disposed to indulge his skepticism, pessimism, and taste for utter desolation.) Pet Sematary is the exception that proves the rule: a morbid and supremely nasty piece of work that King himself purportedly regards as his most upsetting novel, one where he perhaps pushed things a little too far. And that’s coming from the man who wrote It’s notoriously icky Scene That Shall Not Be Named. There’s nothing even remotely bittersweet about Pet Sematary: It’s a meticulous character study, a primally repellent occult fable, and a deeply unsettling rumination on death and dying.

Director Mary Lambert managed to preserve that gangrenous sensibility in her 1989 film adaptation. In part, this was because Paramount Pictures didn’t expect the film to do well: The diminished scrutiny from the studio gave both her and King the freedom to go much darker than mainstream horror features typically dared at the time. Admittedly, Lambert’s Pet Sematary hasn’t aged all that well: Everything except the ghoulish makeup effects is cheap-looking, some scenes feel repetitive, and the pacing is inexcusably sluggish in spots. Still, it’s a solid and remarkably faithful adaptation, especially where the novel’s rotten, gnarly core is concerned. Notwithstanding Paramount’s expectations, Lambert’s feature proved to be a sleeper hit, and it helped cement the late 1980s through mid-1990s as a fecund period for adaptations of King’s works.

King’s brand of pulpy New England horror has been experiencing yet another renaissance over the past couple of years, with adaptations of 11.22.63, 1922, The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game, It, and Mister Mercedes, as well as the “King universe” series Castle Rock. It’s unsurprising, then, that Paramount decided to take a 30-years-later whack at Pet Sematary, whose repulsive and despairing tone makes for a snug fit in the current landscapes of both multiplex and arthouse horror. The filmmakers that have birthed this new version of King’s tale are co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Absence, Starry Eyes, Holidays), with a story and screenplay credited to Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, respectively. Forebodingly, the most promising item on these filmmakers’ collective résumé is probably Buhler’s script for the nascent 2008 cult classic The Midnight Meat Train. No matter: The new Pet Sematary might be a decidedly mixed bag, but it’s still a creeping, squirming, tendon-slicing bad time in all the right ways. 

Kölsch and Widmyer deviate from Lambert’s film right out the gate, by giving the viewer a flash-forward glimpse of their story’s cryptic, bloody aftermath. It’s a questionable opening flourish, but one that’s admittedly consistent with King’s penchant for dribbling ominous, omniscient-flavored forewarnings into his third-person subjective narratives. Even audiences who have not read the novel or seen Lambert’s adaptation will likely find the film’s setup familiar. The Reed family – physician Louis (Jason Clarke), homemaker Rachel (Amy Seimetz), pre-tween Ellie (Jeté Laurence), toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and Ellie’s beloved cat Church – are relocating from the bustle of Boston to sleepy small-town Maine, where Louis has recently accepted a position at a university campus clinic. From the moment that the Reeds’ station wagon pulls into the driveway of their new, perfectly quaint Yankee homestead, however, a shadow is discernible. For starters, there’s the terrifying speed with which the Orinco Petroleum tanker trucks thunder down the country road in front of their house. There’s also the pet cemetery, which Rachel and Ellie discover when they spot a silent procession of masked children reverently carrying a dog’s remains across the family’s property.

Ellie later explores this eerie burial ground, which is tucked away just behind the house in the adjacent woods. There, she runs into the family’s elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who sharply warns her against climbing on a massive tree deadfall, and then softens to explain a little bit of the place’s history. (It turns out his own childhood dog is buried there.) In the following days, the Reeds quickly warm to Jud, a widower and lifelong local fixture, and he in turn takes a shine to Ellie’s precocious energy. The cemetery nags at Ellie’s thoughts, however, eliciting uncomfortable questions about mortality, the afterlife, and how such matters might apply to her cat. Louis favors a blunt, rationalist approach to these inquiries, but Rachel – whose own childhood was spent caring for an older sister twisted physically and mentally by the ravages of meningitis – prefers to shield their kids from such horror with a liberal application of benevolent lies.

Louis has morbid preoccupations of his own, unfortuantely. When a grievously injured auto-accident victim, Victor Pascrow (Obssa Ahmed), is rushed into the university clinic, Louis quickly ascertains that the man cannot be saved. Even though his brains are spilling out of his skull, Victor manages to sit up one last time and uses his final breath to wheeze out an enigmatic warning, calling Louis by name and admonishing that “the barrier must not be broken.” As if this encounter wasn’t harrowing enough, Victor’s gruesome shade later visits Louis in a dream, leading him to the pet cemetery and offering yet another warning, this time regarding the woods beyond the deadfall: The ground is sour. Louis is inclined to chalk it up to a trauma-induced nightmare – if not for the fact that he awakens in his bed with muddy feet.

Late one afternoon, Jud discreetly escorts Louis to an unwelcome scene: Church, stiff and bloody on the side of the road, evidently struck by one of those speeding tankers. Louis makes the fateful decision to conceal the animal’s death from Ellie, and Jud offers to help him bury Church in secret after nightfall. When the time comes, however, the older man doesn’t stop at the pet cemetery, but instead leads Louis over the deadfall, through a swamp, and up a set of ancient hewn stairs to a stony plateau. There, tiny cairns mark what is self-evidently sacred ground. “What are we doing here, Jud?” Louis demands. “We’re burying your daughter’s cat,” is the matter-of-fact but evasive reply. Jud insists that Louis must dig Church’s grave in the thin, rocky soil himself – and then build the cairn as well. Louis does so, and the men return home in silence, with Jud extracting a final promise to keep their nocturnal mission a secret.

What unfolds the following day will be unsurprising to the canny viewer, but it’s still horribly unsettling. Church comes back: disheveled, stiff-limbed, and cockeyed. “Church, you stink!” Ellie exclaims, but whatever is wrong with the girl’s pet goes way beyond the stench of the grave. The animal has become furtive, irritable, and simply off in some elusive but undeniable way. Louis demands an explanation from Jud, who reveals that the place they interred Church is a forgotten Mi’kmaq burial ground, a secret place known only to a handful of locals. Whatever is buried there returns, a phenomenon that Jud witnessed with his own childhood dog – before his father put a bullet into the animal for a second time. Which begs the question: Why the hell did Jud think it was a good idea to bury Church in such a place? Whatever the problems with Buhler’s screenplay – and it has plenty – this Pet Sematary alludes to the dark, otherworldly nudges from King's novel that Lambert’s film elided: “That place … all at once it gets hold of you … and you make up the sweetest-smelling reasons in the world.” This sets the stage for a much more profound tragedy for the Reeds, as well as a downward spiral into blasphemous evil that will haunt many a viewer – especially those with children.

The 1989 film was often plodding and raggedy – the inclusion of the subplot about Rachel’s dead sister was a fruitless miscalculation that the new adaptation repeats and amplifies into a full-blown sub-Insidious haunting – but King’s screenplay possessed something invaluable that Buhler’s script lacks. Namely, the novel’s rich, gradually escalating atmosphere of inescapable doom. Plot points in Pet Sematary 2019 unspool with a kind of dutiful obligation, absent the immersive illusion of cause and effect. It’s a fine distinction, but one that is essential in a story that hinges on the viewer accepting the story’s slow-motion supernatural tragedy. Some of this inelegance is attributable to the substantial changes that Buhler makes to the novel’s plot, and some of it is due to subtler shifts in emphasis. Louis is no longer the only point-of-view character, which makes it difficult for the film to steep in the surrogate father-son relationship the develops between Louis and Jud – a bond that forms the emotional spine of the novel's story. However, the screenplay doesn’t deserve all the blame here. Kölsch and Widmyer seem eager to rush negligently through the story’s first act, so impatient to get to the grave-robbing and grief-wracked madness that they neglect the slow burn. It doesn’t help that Lithgow seems oddly miscast; certainly, he doesn’t have Fred Gwynne’s ease and credibility in the role of a hard-bitten Maine old-timer. (The late Gwynne nailed the region’s characteristic “ayuhs” better than any other actor in any King adaptation.) Lithgow’s performance just feels too soggy and anxious, a poor fit for a character that demands a certain oaken steadiness.

There are plenty of other missteps in this iteration of Pet Sematary. Victor’s apparition never becomes the literally haunting presence he was in the novel or the 1989 film – there’s that whiff of obligatory inclusion again – and Kölsch and Widmyer indulge in one too many winking, sadistic callbacks to the previous adaptation. Morsels of more expansive world-building are sprinkled into the film – such as those creepy masked kids glimpsed at the beginning, or a hulking, shadowy presence in the swamp that may or may not be an evil Algonquin spirit – but these never result in anything other than the most negligible payoff. 

Perhaps it’s for the best: Pet Sematary works precisely because it’s an intimate, domestic story, one concerned with universal experiences as seen through an intensely personal lens. Kölsch and Widmyer’s version of the tale might be clunky in terms of storytelling, but it still handily conveys that fundamental stench of wrongness that undergirds King’s novel. The revisions that Buhler makes to the plot don’t necessarily result in a story that’s “better” or “worse,” just one with different shadings to its horror. What the 1989 screenplay left somewhat mysterious, the 2019 film underlines in hellfire. What was conceptually grotesque 30 years ago is now more explicitly revolting, thanks to some truly unnerving makeup and visual effects. Kölsch and Widmyer never quite replicate the hideous (if cheesy) transgressiveness of Lambert’s film, but they make a respectable go at it – capping things off with a new ending that feels delightfully appalling for a multiplex horror feature.

Regardless, it’s undeniable that the new Pet Sematary is a more formally polished film than its forebear. The shots composed by the directors and cinematographer Laurie Rose are more striking, and the production design by Todd Cherniawsky is more lavish and redolent. Some of this is simply attributable to the film being a $20 million production in 2019, but Kölsch and Widmyer don’t approach the material with mercenary dispassion. They’re self-evidently besotted with King’s disturbing vision, and they often find ways to put an artful yet creepy spin on the genre’s visual and narrative conventions. Indeed, some of the feature’s more self-consciously fakey effects – a creeping white mist straight out of a classic Universal monster movie or an obviously green-screened nocturnal sky roiling with thunderheads – serve to position the film within a slightly older and scruffier cinematic context.

Among the adult performers, the perpetually undervalued Seimetz acquits herself most effectively, although even in its expanded and more phantasmagorical form, Rachel’s subplot still feels somewhat unnecessary. (One can envision a more resonant version of said subplot if the novel were adapted into a limited series and Rachel given her own stand-alone episode.) It’s the 10-year-old Laurence who runs away with the film, however, in a role that requires her to be endearing but a little uneasy, and then later oozing with overripe sweetness – like candied fruit that’s begun to ferment into mold-furred mush.

There’s plenty of little things in this Pet Sematary that linger: that gargantuan deadfall of bone-white trees, more intimidating here than in the novel; the twilit aerial shots of the blue-gray forest crown, more primeval than seems possible for New England (the film was actually shot in Quebec); even the way that zombie Church’s droopy, unblinking eyes never quite seem to follow each other. There’s a moment late in the film when an undead abomination launches into a brief spasmodic frenzy that’s so chilling it’s guaranteed to squat in a corner of the viewer’s subconscious for years. These details notwithstanding, however, it’s the ineffable darkness at the heart of the story that makes Pet Sematary worth revisiting, no matter how imperfect its form. It’s the same darkness that once made King shudder and file his manuscript away, fearful that he had dug too deeply into the festering bowels of love – love for a pet, a child, a partner, or whoever might compel one to do the unthinkable.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mercy Black'.
April 2, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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

Mercy Black

2019 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Owen Egerton / Premiered online on Mar. 31, 2019

Writer-director Owen Egerton’s Mercy Black brazenly and tastelessly repurposes the real-world 2014 Slender Man stabbing for its central conceit. Unlike last year’s unrelated and jaw-droppingly inept Slender Man, however, Mercy Black is at least a functional work of cinema. Indefensibly drab and dull, but functional. By dropping the film just before April Fool’s Day with no warning, Netflix was perhaps hoping for a viral hit, but there’s little that distinguishes Mercy Black from seemingly countless ghost stories featuring creepy kids and rote jump-scares. Lead performer Marina Hess does her best to breathe some life into this tale of a former juvenile perpetrator who is struggling to re-enter society – and begins to suspect that the bogeyman she created as a child may have taken on a life of its own. There is some Candyman-adjacent potential in Mercy Black, but Egerton clings to the tiresome aesthetics and rhythms that presently dominate the genre, even as he’s chaotically cramming together ambiguous and seemingly contradictory plot twists. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Mustang'.
March 28, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

I Watched You Suffer a Dull, Aching Pain

2019 / France, USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre / Opened in select cities on March 15, 2019; locally on March 29, 2019

On paper, the plot of The Mustang – the lyrical, touching, and hard-bitten debut feature from writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – seems like fodder for an orthodoxly heartwarming breed of American-indie cinema. (Indeed, The Mustang premiered not in Clermont-Tonnerre’s native France but at the Sundance Film Festival, and was developed in the creative laboratories at the fest’s parent Sundance Institute.) Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a convicted felon, currently serving out a prolonged prison sentence in an unspecified Western state. Perpetually oscillating between seething rage and slump-shouldered silence, he’s the dictionary definition of antisocial.  An early scene with a prison psychologist (Connie Britton, in a glorified cameo) establishes that Roman has routinely been moved in and out of isolation for various violent infractions. “I’m not good with people,” he admits, squinting impatiently. It’s perhaps for this reason – plus some Hail Mary exasperation – that the psychologist slots him into a maintenance job in an unusual federal rehabilitation program. Under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, select inmates assist with the taming of captured wild horses for eventual auction to law-enforcement agencies and other buyers.

Within the first 15 minutes or so of The Mustang, most viewers will have figured out where this story is headed. Although initially assigned to a shit-shoveling detail, the reluctant Roman is eventually paired up with a particularly headstrong mustang, which he dubs Marquis. The two gradually establish a tenuous bond that offers Roman’s troubled soul the tantalizing possibility of spiritual absolution. Given the wretched conditions inside the prison – which is presently simmering with racial tensions and a drug-trafficking turf war – as well as Roman’s icy, stunted relationship with his pregnant daughter, Martha (Blockers’ Gideon Adlon), the dusty little corral where the convict trains his horse feels like a relative sanctuary. These sessions are not without their challenges, however, between Roman’s volatile temper and the mustang’s almost insolent refusal to even acknowledge commands, let alone accept a saddle and rider.

It’s the stuff of trite but serviceable indie drama, right down to the feisty fellow convict (Jason Mitchell) who shows Roman the (literal) ropes, and the grizzled veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) who offers the protagonist both caustic reproach and folksy reassurance. However, two things serve to sharply distinguish The Mustang from similar films about an unlikely animal-human connection. First is the screenplay – co-written by the director, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Normal Brock – which trades in familiar archetypes but never leans on them excessively for color. Indeed, The Mustang is a remarkably sparing film, dialogue-wise, preferring to allow the bulked-up Schoenaerts’ marvelously sensitive performance to do the emotional heavy lifting. Roman might be a reticent loner, but he’s also the sort of man who wears his surface-level feelings on his sleeve, despite himself. This obligates Schoenaerts to convey bold strokes of emotion with the sort of non-verbal acting that it is at once forceful and fettered, and the actor rises to the occasion splendidly.

De Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-scripters are keenly attuned to how easily their scenario could slip into unearned, maudlin cliché, and their approach to Roman’s arc is sagely and refreshingly restrained. Contrary to what one might glean from a nickel summary of the plot, The Mustang doesn’t fully embrace the notion that taming Marquis offers Roman a chance for a transformative redemption. There’s little sense that freedom – or, at least, an eventual return to the world outside the prison walls – holds much allure for Roman, who seems to regard his physical confinement as a justified penance for his crimes. When the viewer ultimately learns exactly what offense landed him in prison, it proves to be shocking in both its viciousness and its awful banality. During a tense visiting-room conversation with his daughter, Roman briefly (and naïvely) seems to indulge the idea that breaking a mustang will somehow atone for or counter-balance his heavy karmic burden. Fortunately, the film slaps this down, and slaps it down hard – not with lugubrious miserabilism, but stony realism. There’s no un-doing all the terrible things Roman has done, and a few weeks of one-on-one time with a wild animal isn’t going to work some profound change on his deeply etched patterns of behavior.

This kind of hard-nosed pragmatism is consistently employed to gently rein in the story’s drama, preventing it from straying into florid hyperbole or simplistic tidiness. Indeed, The Mustang’s glib marketing tagline – “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” – is almost hilariously off-the-mark when one considers the actual content of the film. The horse’s wild nature is not used to re-cast Roman’s rage and penchant for violence as admirable traits in the cowboy idiom. If anything, Marquis’ untamed animal purity makes for an unflattering contrast with the convict, who is, at this point in his life, a perhaps hopelessly maladjusted ball of toxic impulses. What Marquis does offer to Roman, however, is a means to discover within himself some modest capacity for compassion and selflessness. “Empathy” is often used as little more than an empty, moralistic buzzword these days, but that doesn’t diminish the essential psychological epiphany that it denotes: looking into the eyes of another individual – human or animal – and recognizing that the pain glimpsed within is the same as one’s own pain. In the confines of the little prison corral, Roman grows attuned to Marquis’ fear, fury, and suffering, and it wounds him in a way that he hasn’t permitted himself to be wounded before. (Or, at least, not in a long, long time.)

The second way in which The Mustang sets itself apart is its downright cinematic loveliness. In terms of its subject matter and its dust-caked realism, the film perhaps inevitably invites comparison’s to last year's superb character study from director Chloé Zhao, The Rider. However, although Zhao was attuned to the mythic resonance of that film’s South Dakota landscapes, her feature unequivocally embraced a stripped-down verité look. In contrast, de Clermont-Tonne and cinematographer Ruben Impens – who so fantastically captured the ugly modernist spaces of the French-Belgian horror feature Raw (2016) – amplify the poetic in The Mustang’s visual vocabulary.

Actor-turned-director de Clermont-Tonne previously appeared in painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and although it’s probably a stretch to suggest that the feature was formative for her as a filmmaker, it’s undeniable that The Mustang favors a Schnabel-like impressionism. One can discern it in de Clermont-Tonne’s affinity for gauzy shallow focus and tight, handheld closeups; in the purposely chaotic editing that Géraldine Mangenot at times employs to emphasize terror and confusion; and in the film’s evocative establishing shots, which serve as both pointed metaphors and almost abstract meditative images. Perhaps most gratifyingly, the director and her crew often swerve away from the expected rhythms of the indie drama – smash-cutting to the aftermath of an event rather than lingering on it, for example, or winnowing the hackneyed “training montage” down into a handful of lean, expressive glimpses and then scattering them sparsely throughout the narrative. (There is more than a little Terrence Malick in de Clermont-Tonne’s style as well – a point reinforced by a Days of Heaven-evoking voice-over monologue that closes the film.)

Overall, it’s a lovely work, aesthetically speaking, and a potent reminder that the sort of grainy, washed-out digital photography that The Mustang employs needn’t be synonymous with ugliness. It’s also a fitting look for a film that manages to be at once a gritty character study and an elegiac tone poem. The adroit way that de Clermont-Tonne syncretizes these two aspects of her feature, such that they resemble a rider and a steed working in wordless harmony, is the most intricate achievement in an exceedingly accomplished debut.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Gloria Bell'.
March 24, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Lost in Translation

2019 / Chile, USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Sebastián Lelio / Opened in select cities March 8, 2019; locally on March 22, 2019

Whether art should be evaluated on its own merits and removed from its cultural context or makers’ intentions is a question that has persisted throughout the history of criticism. That conundrum won’t be solved here — countless think pieces comparing remakes, sequels, and/or cinematic universes are probably being written right now — but Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, an American transposition of the director’s earlier Chilean feature Gloria (2013), proves that the matter is particularly thorny.

When a directors choose to remake their own material, they render both versions almost impossible to evaluate sans context. What is the purpose of the update? How do the two works compare? What conversation are they having with each other? Should those questions even be asked? Alfred Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much almost avoid the issue: His 1956 update uses mere germs of the ideas from the 1934 original, turning his pair of films into a case study in artistic and cultural development. Michael Haneke refreshed his 1997 Austrian provocation, Funny Games, remaking it shot-for-shot for American audiences in 2008 and adding yet another meta-textual layer to further implicate U.S. viewers as the ultimate spectators of screen mayhem. 

Unlike Haneke’s self-reflexive remake, Gloria Bell is not a trip down a condescending rabbit hole. However, it does beg the question: Why? Lelio’s latest is not a shot-for-shot remake, but it does use structure, dialogue, and shot set-ups similar to those of the original, even deploying comparable editing within analogous scenes. If anything, the film is actually closer to a band covering their own earlier material for a new fan base, albeit with more money to burn and new knobs with which they can fiddle. This is not to say that the new film is inherently wrong-headed, as Gloria Bell is a largely enjoyable facsimile, but who wouldn’t press play on New Order’s original “Temptation” over “Temptation ’87”? It’s the same old song, but the nuance is gone — or, at least, a new glossy veneer has been applied, obscuring a charming roughness. 

Because it shares virtually the same script as the first Gloria, the narrative is light on plot, turning on just a few incidents to realize a portrait of self-actualization in the midst of ennui. Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is a 50-something divorcée with two millennial children (Michael Cera and Alanna Ubach). Between a mundane office job and living alone in an apartment beneath her landlord’s explosive son, she attends singles-only dance mixers. “I like to dance,” she shouts to a potential mate over the booming disco music. She finds herself taken with a retired naval officer, Arnold (John Turturro), who now runs a theme park complete with a paintball war zone to which Gloria takes a particular liking. (Take notice that “Chekhov's gun” also applies to paintball.) 

Arnold, divorced for just one year now, also has two children, but he’s not as willing to share in his family life as Gloria is with hers. That point of contention comes to a head during Gloria’s family dinner party, when Arnold comes face-to-face with her former husband, Dustin (Brad Garrett). The ensuing (non-)confrontation forces Gloria to examine her decisions and self-worth, with the help of a bag of pot her upstairs neighbor accidentally leaves behind. She waffles back and forth about her relationship with the off-kilter Arnold, before he ultimately decides their fate during a Las Vegas trip. 

The opening zoom shot into Gloria’s neon-lit face among the crowd of middle-aged partygoers reveals not only the character’s timidity in the sea of strangers, but also that Lelio is keen on staying rooted in his protagonist’s experience and her quest for romantic fulfillment. In both versions, the loose camera stays close to the central figure — forcing a viewer’s empathy with an all-too-underrepresented type. However, Lelio has also changed as a director over the years since the original Gloria’s release, winning a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar in 2018 for A Fantastic Woman and releasing his first English-language film, Disobedience, that same year. To that end, the relative visual austerity of Gloria in 2013 has been alternatively supplanted in the update by the Almodóvarian color-flooding of Woman and the art-house polish of Disobedience

Gloria Bell does contain gorgeous evocations of its Los Angeles setting, with the radiant Moore basking in the always-sunny city’s ambient glow, but all that visual lacquering begins to read as reverence for an actor rather than observation of a character. Paulina García, a legendary Chilean actor and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival for the first Gloria, played the character as a stoic charmer who buries her strife until it ultimately erupts. Moore, however, is a Movie Star (probably the best of her kind), and here she is as effervescent as she’s ever been. Although she performs the woman as sometimes doddering and well meaning, there is nevertheless a bright resiliency that always shines through, even when the actor deploys her trademark tear-filled face-crack in a late scene.

Other modifications work to reconfigure the experience. A shimmery score by Matthew Herbert (who also composed strikingly similar music for Woman and Disobedience) replaces the strictly diegetic soundscape of the original. Two additional female characters are shoehorned in — Gloria’s mother (Holland Taylor) and her close work friend (Barbara Sukowa) — allowing for a couple of trite girl-power conversations to take place. The most monumental shift is in Turturro’s performance as Gloria’s romantic interest. The actor is capable of the disarming charm Sergio Hernández brought to that character before, but Turturro’s low-key, antisocial turn makes this film’s two leads’ on-again/off-again relationship less credible, Gloria’s desperation greater, and their ultimate uncoupling a relief instead of a heartbreak. 

Early in their courtship, Gloria brings Arnold to a double date with her best friend (Rita Wilson) and her husband (Chris Mulkey). A minor political disagreement about gun ownership causes the two women to exchange knowing glances about Arnold’s right-leaning views. It’s a beat absent from the original that’s emblematic of Lelio’s increasing penchant for telegraphing and audience hand-holding. Gloria Bell is filled with minor tweaks like these — the handling of Arnold’s shapewear for laughs is another — that come across as if an American studio was handing Lelio notes on his original to make the film more palatable for a mass audience. Nevertheless, both Glorias go down like glasses of fine wine, but one’s enjoyment is completely dependent on whether the preference is for a full-bodied red or a sweet white. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Us'.
March 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Double Trouble

2019 / USA / 116 min. / Dir. by Jordan Peele / Opens in wide release on March 22, 2019

Early in Gaspar Noé’s recent feature Climax, the notorious French provocateur literally puts his cinematic influences on display. On an old-school CRT television, ambitious young dancers speak frankly of their hopes and dreams in snippets plucked from a series of Real World-style audition tapes, ca. 1996. However, the viewer’s eye is irresistibly drawn to what lies outside the TV screen: stacks of VHS tapes, each emblazoned with a title that signals one of Noé’s inspirations. In contrast to the MTV français banalities on display in the interview footage, these titles comprise a catalog of turmoil, terror, and transgression: “Un Chien Andalou” (1929); Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975); Suspiria (1977); Zombi 2 (1979); Possession (1980); Angst (1983); and numerous others. Before the narrative proper has even begun, Noé cheekily establishes a tension between the canned positivity that his characters project and the sordid madness that lurks at the film’s periphery, waiting to pounce.

In what can only be presumed to be uncanny meta-cinema coincidence, writer-director Jordan Peele uses an almost identical device in the prologue to his eagerly anticipated sophomore feature, Us. On a living-room television, retro commercials establish the year as 1986. The content of those advertisements will prove to be significant to the film’s plot, but, once again, it’s the surrounding production design that ensnares the viewer’s attention. Arranged on the entertainment center shelves are video cassettes that include The Right Stuff (1983), The Goonies (1985), and – most salient to the story and themes of Us – Douglas Cheek’s cult horror-satire C.H.U.D. (1984). Elsewhere, Peele drops in overt references to Jaws (1975), Home Alone (1991), and John Landis’ legendary music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983). Subtler allusions abound to The Shining (1980), The Lost Boys (1987), Funny Games (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), and “New French Extremity” landmarks like Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008).

Peele is effusive and unapologetic about his cinephilia, which tends to skew post-Jaws, and about the way that his personal obsessions have aided his rapid ascent to contemporary genre filmmaking’s highest ranks. Considering the director’s avowed fanboyish inclinations, what’s most impressive about Peele’s features – in his galvanic Oscar-winning debut Get Out (2017) and now in Us – is that they never scan as hollow indices of cinematic references, or even as reverent homages. They are ferociously original nightmares: built on a scaffolding of cult-horror fandom and blockbuster (and Blockbuster) history, but conveying a cynical, fractured, and morbidly hilarious spin on the American experience. 

Apart from its sheer craft, Get Out resonated to a great degree because of the perceived novelty of is vision and voice. It was certainly not the first instance in which an African-American artist transmuted deeply felt African-American anxieties into cinematic horror, but it was arguably the most mainstream feature to do so in such a piercing fashion. (Rusty Cundieff’s unexpectedly provocative Tales from the Hood achieves a similar trenchancy, but that 1995 anthology remains something of an underseen curio, especially among white horror aficionados.) Us doesn’t have Get Out’s frank post-Obama racial acerbity, although being a horror feature by a black filmmaker with a black lead cast, it unsurprisingly includes some incisive racial subtext. However, the new film does share with Peele’s debut a daft and profoundly pessimistic view of America. Both features have sci-fi-flavored backstories that are logistically ludicrous, but also oddly credible from a cultural and psychological angle. With the caveat that sweeping metaphors about auteurs based on just two films are always provisional, Peele’s features are like the faerie changelings swapped for human infants in folk tales. They aren’t perfectly accurate reflections of reality, but their horror stems from their uncanny, slantwise resemblance to reality, from the deep cuts inflicted by their perverse exaggerations.

Us is itself proximally rooted in this terror of uncanny resemblance. It is part of a rich tradition of doppelgänger horror that encompasses works ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to Sisters (1973) to Enemy (2013). (To say nothing of the prevalence of twins, doubles, and fetches in Vertigo [1959], Persona [1966], Lost Highway [1997], and many other macabre masterworks from a variety of genres.) If there is a direct antecedent to Peele’s latest film, however, it is – by the director's own admission  – the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image,” in which Vera Miles portrays a woman haunted by a double who mimics her movements. Unlike many episodes in Rod Serling’s classic series, “Mirror Image” is enigmatic rather than heavy-handed, but it shares with Peele’s more explicitly allegorical film the motifs of malicious replacement and imitative action. Us also possess a certain wry, high-concept audacity that feels of a piece with The Twilight Zone – although tonally the film is closer kin to Serling’s sister anthology series Night Gallery and George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. To this, Peele adds the apocalyptic elements of modern zombie fiction, and the result is a story that feels equal parts resonant, fascinating, and preposterous.

In the film’s 1986-set prologue, a little girl who is eventually revealed to be Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) visits the Santa Cruz, Calif., boardwalk with her mother and father (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Quarrelsome and distracted, Adelaide’s parents do not notice when she wanders away to the beach, and then into an apparently deserted hall-of-mirrors attraction. Inside, she encounters another little girl who appears to be her exact double – down to the “Thriller” T-shirt her father just won for her at a carnival game. Peele does not show exactly what befalls little Adelaide when she encounters this doppelgänger, but it’s clear that the incident is disturbing and traumatic, driving the girl’s parents further apart and necessitating therapy under the guidance of a child psychologist (Napiera Groves). The doctor suggests creative expression as a means for Adelaide to process her repressed trauma, and it is ultimately ballet that ends up sustaining the girl through the ensuing years.

However, the past is not so easily buried, as the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) eventually discovers. Now married to good-natured goofball Gabe (Winston Duke) and a mother to adolescent Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and preteen Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide is presently uneasy about a family holiday to Santa Cruz. Her parents have passed away, and her former childhood home now serves as a seasonal vacation residence for her family. However, that inexplicable funhouse encounter so long ago continues to haunt Adelaide, and she is accordingly alarmed when Gabe suggests a visit to the boardwalk. She reluctantly agrees out of deference to her husband’s pleas, as well as politeness to their wealthier white friends, the Tylers: Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker), and twin girls Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide remains on edge, a state exacerbated by a succession of weird omens: eerily familiar faces, portentous numbers, and unlikely synchronicities.

After a brief scare on the beach – Jason wanders away, sending Adelaide into a panic – the family hastily returns to the summer house. Later that night, they make an unnerving discovery: A mysterious family of four is standing in their driveway, mute and motionless. Clad identically in red jumpsuits, sandals, and right-hand leather gloves, these figures seem creepy rather than overtly dangerous – at least until Gabe puts on his alpha-papa pants and threatens them. Whereupon the interlopers abruptly burst into the house and hold the Wilsons hostage in their living room, menacing them with large, golden pairs of scissors. It’s at this point that the baffling reality of the situation becomes apparent: The invaders are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers, each one a twisted reflection of a family member. (The film’s performers play both the originals and the doubles.)

Grunting, wailing, and chittering like animals, the doubles don’t speak, save for Adelaide’s twin, Red. In a croaking, wheezing voice that seems comical at first – before slowly mutating into terrifying – Red explains her history in halting, fairy-tale terms. She describes herself as a pitiable shadow, forced to crawl in the darkness below while her twin was allowed to walk in the light. The doppelgängers are damned to be puppets, insipidly miming the actions of their counterparts but lacking any agency of their own. When Adelaide married Gabe and gave birth to Zora and Jason, Red was obliged to couple with Abraham and to spawn Umbrae and Pluto. Now, however, things have changed: Red speaks of an “Untethering,” an uprising in which the doubles will sever this one-way spiritual connection – by killing their originals. Fortunately, Red is feeling generous, in a sadistic sort of way: The Wilsons will be given a sporting chance to fight back.

So begins a run-and-gun waking nightmare in which the Wilsons pair off to confront their malevolent doubles, only to regroup and spilt up again as the evening’s horrors unfold. Over the next 24 hours or so, the full, shocking extent of the Untethering – which goes way, way beyond one family – becomes dreadfully apparent. However, the bedrock survival-horror aspects of Us remain consistent, even as the science-fiction strangeness spirals into some truly outlandish, hallucinatory territory. The same could be said of Get Out, to an extent. If that film has a nagging flaw, it’s the third-act indulgence of stock Blumhouse survival-horror beats, in contrast to the novelty of the film’s wild, paranoid tone and razor-sharp social critiques. Still, Peele’s debut had its share of memorable images and motifs – that clinking teaspoon! – and Us turns that facility for indelible visuals up to 11.

The director and production designer Ruth De Jong deliver a disorienting combination of the familiar and the surreal. It’s an approach that eschews digital unreality for a dreamlike eccentricity that shades into Kubrick and Tarkovsky without ever ditching its multiplex flash. At one point, Adelaide stumbles her way into a secret underground corridor, which is tiled in institutional white and swarming with live rabbits. Within the bounds of the film’s universe, there is a sort-of explanation for this place, but the imagery has less to do with plausibility than with evoking shivers. The efforts of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who lensed It Follows (2014) and the recent Glass, are less consistent. He and Peele make cunning use of shallow focus, wide shots, and split-diopter effects, finding novel ways to convey familiar horror situations. The lighting in some scenes works splendidly – the eerie, slightly greasy blues of the funhouse sequences are pure black magic – but elsewhere Gioulakis leans artlessly on shadowy murk that is more obscuring than atmospheric.

Us is every inch a sophomore feature: ambitious, inspired, and at times ungainly. Scene to scene, the film doesn’t click together quite as well Get Out. This is partly because the writer-director is here committed to a more eccentric mythology, and as a result the new film isn’t as structurally disciplined or self-contained as its predecessor. (Story-wise, the entirety of Get Out is analogous to the first act in Us.) Editor Nicholas Monsour, who cut the Peele-co-scripted comedy Keanu (2016), also makes his share of missteps. There are some wonderfully assembled sequences in Us – including a climactic hand-to-hand duel that is spectacularly cross-cut with two different ballet routines – but also some distractingly jarring scene transitions.

The supporting performances are all solid, particularly Duke as a dorky middle-class dad who is a little insecure about his second-in-command standing, albeit in the mildest and most endearing way. Moss gets the opportunity to play against type as a vapid, prickly, faintly dissatisfied suburbanite, the sort of woman who says “vodka o’clock” unironically. However, the film unambiguously belongs to N’yongo, who essentially fills both the lead protagonist and the lead antagoist roles. Initially, Peele’s screenplay doesn’t afford Adelaide much of an interior life beyond her bottled-up trauma – which comes spurting out in tearful gouts once the doppelgängers appear – and her generic Mama Bear protectiveness, but N’yongo sells those with every ounce of her being. Eventually, as the film’s backstory comes into sharper focus and the final twists snap into place, Adelaide (and Red) become much more intriguing characters. Like The Sixth Sense, Oldboy (2003), and Shutter Island (2010), it’s the sort of film that will reward multiple viewings, demanding close attention to the nuances of the lead actor’s performance.

Considering Get Out’s success as both a mainstream box-office hit and a seismic force in the cultural conversation, it’s perhaps inevitable that some viewers are going to walk away baffled and disappointed by Us. It’s certainly weirder, clumsier, and cagier than Peele’s directorial debut. It also feels somehow less urgent and less pointed, its metaphorical meanings more expansive and open to interpretation. Granted, threads of racial consciousness are undeniably woven into Us. They can be discerned in the film's sensitivity to the way that racist inclinations can be concealed but not eliminated by a veneer of political correctness, or the way that the white bourgeoisie subtly bigfoot their aspirational black counterparts. However, Peele’s latest is just as concerned with class, labor, violence, and ignorance as it is with race, not to mention more personal, psychological themes such as trauma and guilt. Lest any viewer think that the director has blunted his blade now that he has an Oscar on his shelf, Red underlines the wokeness that lurks beneath Peele’s midnight-movie gleefulness. When asked who she and her fellow doppelgängers are, she replies with a rictus grin: “We’re Americans.”

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt