A still from 'My Night at Maud's'.
March 19, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

Throughout 2019, Cinema St. Louis will feature films celebrating their 50th anniversaries, with major works from 1969 screening during the Robert Classic French Film Festival, QFest St. Louis, and the Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival. In addition, CSL will co-present Golden Anniversaries — a stand-alone festival of six key films from 1969 — on three consecutive weekends this fall (Aug. 31-Sept. 1, Sept. 7-8, and Sept. 14-15) at the St. Louis Public Library’s Central Library. The Lens will present essays on many of those films, beginning with this entry on director Éric Rohmer’s My Night at Maud’s. Note: This essay contains a detailed discussion of the film's plot and therefore includes major spoilers.

My Night at Maud’s will screen at 7 p.m. on Sunday, March 24, 2019 at Washington U.'s Brown Hall Auditorium as part of the 11th Annual Robert Classic French Film Festival. Purchase tickets here.

‘My Night at Maud’s’: Design for Living

By Robert Garrick

1969 / France / 105 min. / Dir. by Éric Rohmer / Premiered May 15, 1969, at the Cannes Film Festival; opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 22, 1970

On the 50th anniversary of My Night at Maud’s, it’s helpful to remember what the world was like back in 1969. The sexual revolution was in full flower thanks to “the pill,” which had gained wide acceptance by the late 1960s. Movies, under the new MPAA rating system instituted in 1968, were suddenly full of profanity, nudity, and sex. An X-rated picture about a male prostitute, Midnight Cowboy, was 1969’s Oscar winner for Best Picture. It was the era of free love and busted taboos.

It was against this background that Éric Rohmer made My Night at Maud’s, a deadly serious film about moral choices, about living a Christian life, and — most of all — about the constant struggle between the human impulse to reason and the Catholic requirement to have faith.

Maud’s was the third and probably the most heralded of Rohmer’s six Moral Tales. These films, which catapulted Rohmer into the first rank of world directors, all took the form of a first-person narrative. The narrator — always a male character — would seek a woman. He’d be distracted by a second female, often a highly physically attractive one, but eventually he’d return to the first one. This is the model of F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), a film that Rohmer knew and admired.

Rohmer’s Moral Tales were not stories with a “moral”; nor were they held up by Rohmer as examples of “morality.” Instead, they were films about characters who were guided by fidelity to a moral idea. In My Night at Maud’s, one character is a dedicated Marxist and another is struggling with Catholicism. “What interests me,” Rohmer said, “is showing men who are not absolutely certain of the validity of their adherence to a doctrine, and who interrogate themselves about it and place a wager on it.”

There’s no violence in My Night at Maud’s, no crime, no explicit sex, no action, and not much plot. There’s no music — just lots of beautifully written dialogue. The talk is of religion, philosophy, Catholicism, morality, math ... and Blaise Pascal. (More later about him.)

Through it all, there are sexy scenes between men and women, which no doubt contributed to the film’s success. After a rocky showing at Cannes in 1969, My Night at Maud’s became a popular hit in Paris, then in London. It was a sensation at the 1969 New York Film Festival, after which it became a major commercial and critical success in the United States in 1970. Andrew Sarris rated Maud’s one of the three best films of 1970, and ultimately he included it as one of the four best films of the decade. Richard Schickel said it was the best film of the year. At the Oscars, My Night at Maud’s was nominated for both Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay.

The critics who wrote about Maud’s mostly zeroed in on the male/female dynamic. Rohmer has said that the original idea came to him in 1945, and it involved a man trapped in a room with an extremely attractive woman for an extended period. So that is the heart of the film, and that scene in Maud’s — the titular “night” — consumes half of its running time.

But Maud’s is not a film about sex or romance. Nor is it a comedy, as some have written. Rohmer’s film is about religion and Catholicism. It’s about living an ascetic life and obtaining eternal salvation. It’s a sermon, built around one man’s spiritual adventure

The first shot in My Night at Maud’s is important. It’s a bird’s-eye view of a small town in the mountains, a jumble of gray houses and rugged terrain, with some church steeples. We’re in the French provinces — the hinterlands — and the scene is just outside the town of Clermont-Ferrand. The winter sun is rising on the Forez Mountains.

The next shots reveal that this is the point of view of the narrator, who is nameless throughout the film. Let’s refer to him as Jean-Louis, after Jean-Louis Trintignant, the actor who plays him.

That cluttered opening shot is a reflection of Jean-Louis’ moral state. He’s confused; he’s looking for rigor and meaning in his life. He’s single, 34 years old, recently returned to France from South America, where he worked as an engineer. Now he’s employed at the local Michelin plant.

Jean-Louis is personable, attractive, and doing fine professionally. He’s had a series of girlfriends, all serious relationships, and he’s maintained the connection to the Catholic Church that he inherited from his parents. But it’s not enough, and Jean-Louis knows it. He’s marking time; it’s not a “life.”

In church (Notre Dame du Port) the same day, Jean-Louis spots a single blond woman in profile. She appears to be serious about the services. She turns slightly in the direction of Jean-Louis, showing that she feels his gaze. Jean-Louis is fascinated with this woman — perhaps she is the ideal he has been looking for. They don’t speak, but the woman knows that she’s being examined. She leaves church on a motorized bicycle, and Jean-Louis follows her in his small car through the narrow streets of Clermont-Ferrand.

This scene — which is straight out of Vertigo (1958) — is telling. When Scottie Ferguson (James Stewart) tailed Madeleine Elster (Kim Novak) in his car through the streets of San Francisco, he appeared to be a hired detective watching a wealthy woman who was in the thrall of a psychic deception. That’s what we thought — but the reality was something quite different. Madeleine was not the woman Scottie thought she was. And Scottie was more than a detective: He was a detective who was becoming dangerously infatuated.

Rohmer was a Hitchcock scholar — he and Claude Chabrol wrote the first book-length study of Hitchcock in 1957, right around the time Vertigo was released. It’s likely that this scene was intended as a quote from Hitchcock, and as a form of shorthand. Jean-Louis is becoming infatuated with this woman, whose name (we later learn) is Françoise (Marie-Christine Barrault). And Françoise is not quite what she appears to be.

As Jean-Louis pursues “the girl on a bicycle,” we are in the car with him. It’s small, constricted, noisy. The street is narrow, with lots of obstacles. Françoise moves effortlessly through this terrain on her more primitive vehicle, but Jean-Louis is ultimately blocked by another car and loses her. He’s frustrated, but he will not forget François.

A day or two later, Jean-Louis enters a café in Clermont. He bumps into an old classmate, Vidal (Antoine Vitez), whom he hasn’t seen in years. Vidal is a Marxist, an atheist, and a university professor in philosophy. Neither Jean-Louis nor Vidal are regulars at that café. The meeting seems almost mystical, a remarkable chance occurrence.

It’s Dec. 24, Christmas Eve. Vidal and Jean-Louis eat, and there’s a discussion of the ideas of Blaise Pascal, the 17th-century French mathematician and theologian whose birthplace was Clermont-Ferrand. Pascal is famous for his “wager” — the notion that it is rational to commit to Christ. Pascal’s logic: If the wager proves wrong — if life was meaningless — nothing would be lost. But if the wager is right — if Christ was the Lord — eternal salvation would await.

Jean-Louis finds Pascal’s wager too “rigid” and says so. Vidal says that in his own life, he’s applied the wager to Marxism. Vidal personally doubts that history has any meaning, but he’s “wagered” that history does have meaning and that Marxism is the future. That’s the wager — the only one, Vidal says — that allows him to live.

Rohmer has talked of the importance of fidelity: fidelity to a woman, to an idea, or to a dogma. Pascal’s wager says you have to pick a side; you have to make a bet. You can’t reason your way through life; you must pick a guiding principle and stick to it.

Following the meal, Vidal has tickets to a violin performance, and Jean-Louis comes along. Then Jean-Louis says that he plans to attend Midnight Mass, at the start of Christmas Day. Vidal agrees to come, too, and says that he later wants Jean-Louis to visit the apartment of his friend, who is getting a divorce.

That friend turns out to be Maud (Françoise Fabian), and Jean-Louis’ “night” with her begins in the wee hours of Christmas Day.

The night at Maud’s apartment consumes half of the film. Vidal is there at first, but he ultimately gets drunk and leaves. He and Maud had been occasional lovers, but on this night Maud is more interested in Jean-Louis. So they are alone in Maud’s apartment, together.

Maud is beautiful, all right. She’s a brunette. She’s charming, smart, talkative, congenial. It’s snowing outside — perfect Christmas weather — and Maud convinces Jean-Louis to sleep in “her spare room,” because it would be too dangerous to drive home.

As it turns out, there is no spare room, and Maud spends most of the night gently trying to seduce Jean-Louis. They talk of religion, of philosophy, of romance, of Pascal. Maud asks for her cigarettes and for a drink of water. She’s trying to get Jean-Louis closer to the bed, where she sits in her nightshirt.

Jean-Louis blunders his way through the session, saying this and that, somehow resisting the stunning Maud, but never completely closing the door on sex with her. Eventually he sleeps, chastely wrapped in blankets, next to her on the bed. In the morning, he almost succumbs to Maud’s advances, but she says no. “I like people who know what they want,” she says harshly.

They agree to meet later in the day, in the mountains, at a planned event. Maud teases him: “There’s a girl you might like ... a blonde.”

Now the sun is up on Christmas morning, and Jean-Louis is having breakfast in a café. Through the windows, he sees the blonde woman from church, Francoise, go by on her motorbike. He leaves the café, without his coat, and runs after her in the street. He meets her and makes a clumsy but effective introduction, telling Françoise that he would like to get to know her. They agree to have lunch the next day, after church.

We are now in the final third of the film. Through a series of remarkable “chances,” Jean-Louis spends the night in the apartment of Françoise, in the mountains above town. (Again, the weather forces him to stay.) It’s the opposite of the night with Maud. Françoise does have a spare room, and she parks Jean-Louise there. There’s never any question about sex — there will not be any. Françoise is proper and chaste throughout. She even resists a kiss from Jean-Louis.

It’s Françoise, though, whom Jean-Louis craves. He tells her he loves her. Up in the mountains, outdoors, she confesses that she is not the girl he thinks she is. She had an affair — with a married man. Jean-Louis is shaken but he accepts the news. Françoise says: “Let’s never speak of it again.”

Five years pass. Françoise and Jean-Louis have married — in the Catholic Church, of course — and they have a son. We see the three of them climbing down a hill, to the beach, on a hot sunny day. They run into Maud, who is climbing up the hill, alone. Françoise looks uneasy and (after a quick introduction) continues on, and Maud speaks to Jean-Louis alone. She is as beautiful as ever. She says she’s remarried, and that it’s not going well. She cuts off the discussion because she can see that Françoise is uncomfortable. She continues up the hill, and out of the film.

Down on the beach, we learn that the married man with whom Françoise was having an affair was Maud’s husband. As Françoise makes this confession, Jean-Louis lies to her, telling her that Maud was “his last fling.” Again, Françoise says: “Let’s never speak of it again.”

And they run, together, with their son, toward the water, with the clear skies overhead. The film ends.

In My Night at Maud’s, Jean-Louis is forced to choose between Françoise and Maud. Françoise is mostly a cipher, an idea. She never says much, and she doesn’t seem to have much of a personality. But to Jean-Louis she is associated with the Church, and she represents a possible marriage, a family, and a lifetime commitment.

Maud, on the other hand, is beautiful and exciting and nice. But she represents passion. Maud is looking for sex first and maybe something else later. Somehow, Jean-Louis resists Maud’s advances during their “night,” in the early hours of Christmas Day.

Much has been made of the differences between Maud and Françoise. Maud is brunette, dark, educated, older, urban, well off, quite comfortable indoors and at night, worldly, divorced. She’s sexually eager. She’s not a believer, and Rohmer calls her a “socialist.” She’s gorgeous, but there’s something vaguely threatening about her looks. She could be a beautiful witch. In the last scenes of the film, where she’s outdoors and in the sunlight, she’s uneasy, out of her element.

Françoise is the opposite in almost every way. She’s blond, young, still getting her education. She’s religious, a Catholic student in biology. She’s quite comfortable outdoors, on her motorbike, on the beach, and in the mountains where she lives. She’s at home in the sunlight. She’s not talkative, not all that interested in ideas. She’s quiet and a bit awkward. She’s sexually restrained. She’s never been married.

These opposites are part of the look of the film as well: black and white — and a lot of gray. Clermont-Ferrand is depressing and gray in the depths of winter, but there is also “color.” Rohmer: “It’s a film in color in a way, except that the colors are black and white.” The dreary nature of Clermont-Ferrand represents Pascal’s idea that grace awaits in another life, not on Earth. As for the blacks and whites, in the clothing, in the volcanic rock buildings of Clermont — they represent the different paths available to Jean-Louis.

The previous discussion of the Hitchcockian scene early in the film, where Jean-Louis tails Françoise in his car, makes Rohmer’s affinity for that director clear. Most of the writers at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s, Rohmer included, regarded Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks as two of the greatest directors. (Andre Bazin would refer to Rohmer, with amusement, as a “Hitchcocko-Hawksian.”) Hawks favored an eye-level camera, with long takes, natural dialogue, and medium shots. That’s the formula used by Rohmer in Maud’s. There are few close-ups, and there’s no fancy editing. It all seems quite relaxed. The focus is on the players, not on the director.

Obviously, the core of the film is the choice between Maud and Françoise. All of the players are nice people — attractive, well spoken, pleasant. There are no heroes or villains. But there are profound differences nevertheless. Jean-Louis spends most of the film in a state of confusion, but he is able to stick with his original feeling that Françoise is the answer. He resists the more worldly and sexy Maud.

Françoise represents faith. She represents Catholicism, marriage, simplicity. She also represents the natural world — the outdoors. Maud represents reason. She is her own master. She works her way through life logically.

Faith vs. reason. Jean-Louis chooses faith. At the very end of the film, after his final commitment to Françoise, the world opens up for the two of them and their child. They run to the ocean in what appears to be a moment of great joy. Jean-Louis, who began the film staring at a mess of buildings and mountain crags, has found peace and simplicity.

More than a few critics are unhappy with this interpretation of the film. Marion Vidal, for example, finds Jean-Louis appalling. He’s “a master of mental restriction and lie by omission.” Maud is honest, gracious, sensual, and direct: “When I say yes, it’s yes; when I say no, it’s no.” The critic describes the marriage to Françoise as “a fantasy marriage, founded on lies and secrecy.”

Frank Cunningham agrees with Marion Vidal. He sees Maud as an exemplary character, albeit a tragic one. (She loses two men to Françoise and is now involved in another failing marriage.) He describes the last scene of the film: “Hand in hand, holding their child, they run from the prying camera’s eye into the sea, secure in their illusions, their conventional marriage, their need not to be honest with one another, far from the moral struggle and ambiguity faced daily by Maud.”

Cunningham and Marion Vidal are not wrong, and neither is Maud. They believe in reason — in the ability of humans to forge their way through life, logically and honestly, one action at a time.

That’s one approach. In the film, it doesn’t work well for Maud, or for Vidal, the man who introduces Jean-Louis to Maud. Maud and Vidal are not happy, and they’re not successful in their relations with the opposite sex.

Rohmer has said that if Jean-Louis had slept with Maud, the affair “would have lasted a week and then it would have been over.” The priests in the film — whose words were carefully chosen by writer/director Rohmer — come down solidly on the side of faith. At the second church visit, the Dominican priest says that “Christian life is not a moral code. It is a life … the adventure of saintliness.” He goes on to say that “one must be mad to be a saint.” Only by making the “bet,” by being all-in, can you be mad. Once you’re on the path, you have to stay there, with faith that things will work out.

Critic C.G. Crisp, who wrote a major work on Rohmer, points out: “Maud is the opposite of mad. She has learned to live in a relative world.” That sounds positive. But then Crisp writes: “Rohmer allows her point of view full expression, so that it is easy to come away from the film feeling that he supports her. The devil is convincing; his arguments are always more plausible than God’s, because he has reason on his side. And some of the arguments prove immensely attractive to our hero, who is guilty of the most specious bad faith in defending his mediocrity and his lack of total commitment.”

It’s chilling to remember that Maud’s presence in the film comes courtesy of Vidal, who appears out of nowhere in the cafe. The very name “Vidal” is an anagram of “dival,” or devil. Vidal is an atheist and a Marxist; Rohmer has called Maud a “radical socialist.” To Rohmer, these are not good things. Maud is not a believer, and when the evening begins, with the two men arriving from Midnight Mass, Maud says they “reek of Holy Water.” Maud is charming, but so was Count Dracula. Both of them are uncomfortable around religious symbols.

Crisp reminds us that for much of the film Jean-Louis is boxed up — in his car, staring out of his windshield; in Maud’s apartment; in the apartment of Françoise. Only at the very end does Jean-Louis break free, running with joy toward the open world of the beach and the sky. Crisp points out that by fully committing to Françoise at the end of the film, Jean-Louis is “choosing a rigid code of religious doctrine, a tightly structured system — a ‘prison’ — in preference to the looser, more liberal system of the freethinker, Maud. Yet the visual imagery works in the opposite direction, to suggest the ultimate escape from such a prison.” Rohmer is saying: Only through faith, even mad faith, can one become truly free.

At Midnight Mass, on Christmas Day, just before his night with Maud, Jean-Louis hears the priest say: “The birth, at which we rejoice, is not above all the birth of the infant Jesus, it is our own. Something must be born in each of us this night.”

Robert Garrick — attorney, board member of the French-preservation nonprofit Les Amis, and former contributor to the davekehr.com film blog — will introduce and discuss My Night at Maud’s at 7 p.m. Sunday, Mar. 24, at Washington U.’s Brown Hall Auditorium. Purchase tickets here.

Tags: Golden Anniversaries

A still from 'One Child Nation'.
March 11, 2019
By Cait Lore

The Highs and Lows at the Premiere Documentary Film Festival

For the last 16 years, the True/False Film Festival has challenged the way audiences think of documentary filmmaking, but it’s also reshaped expectations for the film-festival experience as a whole. Immersive art installations, a live game show, and the “March March” parade overtake the streets of downtown Columbia, Mo. Waiting is just part of the show, as buskers perform live at festival venues before film screenings begin. And then there are the “Q Queens” — seasoned True/False volunteers in Comic Con-ready looks — who reign over the festival’s queue lines. Rarely is nonfiction cinema made into such a spectacle.

However, it’s the top-notch programming that brings True/False festival-goers back year after year. Even narrative films can find their way into True/False’s lineup, so long as they wrinkle the line between fact and fiction. A great example from this year’s fest — held from Feb. 28-March 3 — is Our Time, the world-class Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ newest feature, which operates as a paranoid dissection of love and relationships when an open marriage begins to break apart. Biographical forces dominate every frame, given that the director has chosen to cast himself and his real-life spouse, Natalia López, as the central couple. Shot by Diego García (Cemetery of Splendour, Neon Bull), Our Time’s imagery warrants a firm recommendation alone. That being said, Our Time might pose as an honest investigation into what, for Reygadas, are very real forces, but what is conveyed onscreen feels far more self-indulgent than it is self-aware. 

This years’ iteration of True/False saw an end to the festival’s secret screenings, in which films with world premieres at festivals later that year — such as Cannes or SXSW — would play first to a unknowing True/False crowd. Early cuts of high-profile films have screened at these events, which provide directors with the opportunity to test-drive their film before their official premieres. The catch? No one could write or talk about the True/False secret screening until after the official world premiere months later. 

Functioning as a substitute for the secret screenings this year was Nathan Fielder’s Finding Frances. At that film’s screening, a True/False programmer took the stage to thank the crowd for years of loyalty on the secret-screenings front. In a similar fashion, he requested that audiences refrain from recording the never-before-seen bonus footage accompanying Finding Frances’ post-screening Q&A. The film is a series finale to Fielder’s hit show Nathan for You, and the audience was informed that, like the secret screenings, the True/False debut was a trial run to see how Finding Frances will play to moviegoers unfamiliar with Fielder’s series.

Still: Does a 2017 made-for-TV comedy feature belong at True/False in this capacity? That’s a tough sell for this critic, who, full disclosure, thinks Fielder’s brand of comedy is mean-spirited. Even the most diehard Fielder fan should be able to understand why screening a two-hour special, which debuted on basic cable, might appear to lower the standards of the festival. In theory, attendees could have seen the same two-hour footage on their Columbia-motel TV, had it been playing that night, making Finding Frances a frustrating waste of time for serious festival-goers. Furthermore, the film is just more of the same comedy from Fielder, whose character is something like David Brent of the U.K. version of The Office, albeit if the world were laughing with him. 

If Chinese conglomerates take over American industry, what does this mean for working-class Americans, labor unions, and the (so-called) American Dream? Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert’s American Factory chases answers in Dayton, Ohio, where Fuyou, a Chinese-owned manufacturing company, opened its first U.S.-based factory in 2014. For many locals, the opening of Fuyou Glass America meant a restoration of jobs that evaporated after the 2008 recession, but at what cost? The Sundance-approved American Factory makes a strong case for workers’ unions, but ethnocentrism clouds this film’s line of sight. 

Both Chinese Portrait and Up the Mountain bring a painterly gaze to China’s landscapes and its people. The former, directed by Wang Xiaoshuai, blurs the line between video installation and nonfiction filmmaking. Since 2009, Wang has been travelling across his home country, taking moving video portraits of people, posing as they would for a still photograph. Admittedly, the impact of these images waxes and wanes. However, Wang’s ultimate goal, it seems, is to give insight into unseen corners of contemporary China; there, he certainly succeeds. Up the Mountain, meanwhile, takes a more literal approach to a painterly composition. Filming over the course of a year, director Zhang Yang records the lives of a community of artists living in the mountains of China’s Yunnan Province. Teacher Shen Jianhua and his pupils — a gregarious gang of grannies — document the daily lives of the Bai ethnic minority community through their paintings. Framed in a 1:1 aspect ratio, Zhang’s camera acts as another canvas, imitating their compositions and saturated color palettes. One of Shen Jianhua’s most devoted pupils, twentysomething Dinglong, finds himself pressed to leave village and move to the big city. Change is inevitable for both Dinglong and the Bai lifestyle that informs his practice. However, these paintings, as well as Zhang’s film, offer a way to preserve a way of life threatened by modernization. Visually stunning and a precious cultural document, Up the Mountain is sure to see heavy festival play this year.

State-enforced sterilizations, kidnapping, and systematic murder — these are but everyday realities for Chinese citizens under the nation’s one-child policy. At the start of One Child Nation, filmmaker Nanfu Wang — born under the policy herself — admits to not questioning China’s population-control methods until she emigrated to the U.S. and became pregnant herself. This revelation, and the end of the policy in 2015, prompted Wang to return the rural village she grew up in. What at first begins as an exercise in radical empathy and healing for Wang’s family spirals out into the global ramifications of this government-enforced social experiment. There are no villains in One Child Nation. It does, however, offer a warning. “This is not just a Chinese issue. It’s all around the world,” observed Nanfu Wang to a True/False crowd. “Not questioning anything — that’s what leads to propaganda.” The film certainly benefits from Wang’s ability to question everything, to convey her perspective and press on into the most difficult of issues. By following the story where it takes her, she reveals a ripple effect across two continents. Wide-eyed and daring, One Child Nation is a remarkable piece of investigative filmmaking, one that is highly recommended.

Tags: Festivals Cait Lore

A still from 'Captain Marvel'.
March 7, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

I Love the 90s

2019 / USA / 124 min. / Dir. by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck / Opens in wide release on Mar. 8, 2019

Last year’s bite-size post-Infinity War digestif Ant-Man and the Wasp – which, in fact, unfolds shortly before the Avengers’ doomed confrontation with the Mad Titan Thanos; do try to keep up, people – was the first clear sign that the feature films of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) might be teetering away from “good enough” and into “forgettable.” Granted, there wasn’t anything overtly dislikable about AM&tW, which did a fine job of replicating the comparatively small-scale storytelling (pun intended) and playful action of its predecessor. Less than a year later, however, one is hard-pressed to remember anything substantive about the film, or even what the central conflict might have been. (Something about Michelle Pfeiffer being shrunk down to the size of a Higgs boson?) Summer blockbusters that cost well north of $160 million typically emerge as either beloved pop events or utter fiascos. There’s something oddly disheartening about a film made on such a scale attaining little more than functional, ephemeral blandness, especially given the MCU mega-franchise’s track record. (The studio nabbed a Best Picture Oscar nomination early this year, after all.)

Which brings one to the much-anticipated Captain Marvel, which is rather unbelievably the first MCU film to feature a female superhero protagonist (following a whopping 20 male-dominated entries). The better-late-than-never significance of this moment from a representation standpoint has focused attention – mostly from excited comic fans, plus a handful of the usual fragile manchildren – on this inaugural MCU appearance of Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers, who is a sort of intergalactic living superweapon. (Both the title and Carol herself have convoluted Marvel Comics backstories that are not worth delving into here.)

Accordingly, the most immediately disappointing thing about Captain Marvel is how dispiritingly middling it proves to be, and how palpably desperate it is to establish its feminist-but-not-y’know-too-feminist credentials. Perhaps it’s unfair to hold the MCU’s latest feature up alongside the first woman-led film in the rival DC Extended Universe, but a comparison to Wonder Woman (2017) is nonetheless instructive. Where Patty Jenkins’ film expressed its unabashedly female worldview through burning conflicts and graceful characterization, co-directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (Half Nelson, Sugar) – who co-wrote Captain Marvel’s screenplay with Geneva Robertson-Dworet – seem content to sneak fist-pumping girl-power bromides in between the lines of a generic imperial space-war plot. Perversely, while Captain Marvel has been positioned as a vital moment for pop-cultural gender equality, it sometimes feels as though its feminism is almost incidental, an accessory affected in the same manner as the nostalgia-stoking nods to its 1990s setting.

The film’s story revolves around the conflict between the authoritarian Kree and the shape-shifting Skrulls, both alien space-faring civilizations that have evidently been battling each other for millennia. Vers (Brie Larson), pronounced “veers,” is a member of Starforce, a kind of Kree special-forces wing that focuses primarily on battling the Skrulls and other threats to their intergalactic empire’s expansionist ambitions. Vers – who looks an awful lot like a human woman, blue-green blood excepted – has the mysterious ability to project devastating energy blasts from her hands, but her training under the tutelage of her humorless commander, Yon-Rogg (Jude Law), has focused on keeping both her powers and her emotions in check. The Kree prioritize imperial glory and cold-hearted collectivist action, and after a pyrotechnic outburst during an early-morning training exercise, Vers is sent to commune with the Kree civilization’s AI potentate, the Supreme Intelligence, for a bit of re-education. In the virtual world of this entity’s electronic brain, the S.I. supposedly takes the form of a familiar face, but Vers doesn’t recognize the smartly dressed woman (Annette Benning) who appears before her.

After reprimanding Vers, the S.I. sends the Starforce team to rescue a Kree spy, whose cover has been blown and is now pinned down by Skrull terrorists on a backwater planet. There, the squad is ambushed and Vers is captured, at which point she is whisked off through a wormhole for high-tech interrogation by a slippery Skrull leader, Talos (Ben Mendelsohn). The Skrulls are looking for something very specific buried deep in Vers’ memories, which inexplicably look a lot like the recollections of a human Air Force officer, not an alien warrior. No one is more surprised and distressed by this than Vers herself, who has no memory of her life before the Kree found her hovering near death some years ago. Vers escapes, only to discover that she is being held on a starship in orbit over “shithole” planet C-53, also known as Earth. Both she and her Skrull pursuers disembark to the planet’s surface, and Vers is quickly swept up into the mainline MCU continuity. When reports come in that a superpowered woman has fallen out of the sky and through the roof of a Blockbuster Video in suburban LA – Get it? It’s the ’90s! – S.H.I.E.L.D. agents Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Phil Coulson (Clark Gregg) show up to contain the situation. (The digital de-aging of Jackson is, admittedly, pretty damn flawless.)

Everything prior to Vers’ fish-out-of-water arrival on Clinton-era Earth is essentially prologue, and largely generic prologue at that. The Kree-vs.-Skrull conflict is a long-running and vitally important aspect of the Marvel Comics universe, but in Captain Marvel the film it largely comes off as bland, off-brand Star Wars goofiness, comparable to the least memorable “cosmic” plot elements that run through the Thor and Guardians of the Galaxy films. (Quick: Who was the villain from Thor: The Dark World? Can’t remember? Don’t worry: No one does.) There’s far too much awkward exposition in the service of idiot-simple world-building, including some painfully clunky “As you know ...” exchanges between Yon-Rogg and Vers.

Things improve substantially once Vers and Fury team up, and not only because the latter becomes the eager vessel into which Vers can pour quick-and-dirty explanations for what the hell is going on. Larson and Jackson make for an enjoyable odd couple, and while the MCU has leaned into buddy-comedy humor before, the vibe of Captain Marvel isn’t quite the same relentless deadpan quippiness that has come to dominate the franchise. After some initial wariness, Vers and Fury strike up an unexpectedly warm alliance, one characterized by equal parts respect and low-key teasing, a mixture that lacks the prickly, dick-measuring edge of the series’ intra-Avengers posturing. (Conversely, there’s not even a hint of romance in the relationship, which is a welcome absence.) Initially, Larson’s strait-laced acting style seemed like it might have been a poor fit for the MCU, but it arrives as something of a mellow balm, allowing the actress to focus on Vers’ earnest crisis of confidence and identity without the need to wedge in a sarcastic jibe every five seconds. What's more, one of the distinctive pleasures of Captain Marvel is the sight of a less put-upon and abrasive iteration of Nick Fury, at this point a canny 40-something field agent who trusts his instincts and rolls with whatever sci-fi weirdness he encounters.

The story’s conflicts shift about halfway through the film, sometimes in unexpected directions but usually along entirely predictable lines – e.g., the amnesiac Vers previously had a human life on Earth as “Carol Danvers,” complete with an illustrious Air Force career and a best friend (Lashana Lynch) who thinks she is dead. Suffice to say that Carol uncovers some startling truths about, among other matters, the origin of her potent abilities, the MacGuffin that the Skrulls are seeking on Earth, and the ugly side of her adopted Kree family. Whatever dramatic and emotional resonance these comic-flavored story beats possess is attributable primarily to the film’s performances, which are uniformly solid and occasionally even stirring. The uncanny yet effusive reunion between Carol and her fellow USAF pilot and BFF Maria (Lynch) is quite affecting, for example. The same can’t be said of the screenplay, which is hamstrung by its own commitment to those aforementioned plot twists. Keeping the truth from both the audience and the heroes demands a frustrating, characterization-starved caginess for the first third or so of the film, during which there’s not much for the viewer to engage with other than some generic space-opera visuals and typical MCU to-and-fro action. (Captain Marvel has one of those exasperating plots that could be deflated if characters would simply stop and explain themselves.)

The filmmakers lean into the story’s period setting in the most pandering and superficial way possible, as though simply showing a thing that existed ca. 1997 is enough to inspire Millennial glee. Accordingly, the viewer is subjected to endless sight gags that amount to a “Remember this?” wink-and-nudge, from the knotted flannel fashion to the agonies of dial-up Internet. It makes the 1980s-humping in Netflix’s Stranger Things seem seamless and nuanced by comparison. In truth, Captain Marvel’s approach isn’t all that different from Ready Player One’s (2018) more gonzo and shameless nostalgia-prodding, although a better parallel might be justifiably forgotten indie “period” comedies like The Wackness (2008). Captain Marvel is on firmer ground when it simply alludes to other films at the plot or motif level, as in its nods to Superman, The Last Starfighter, Starman, Top Gun, Terminator 2, and, improbably, The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It goes without saying that the soundtrack is chock-a-block with Elastica, Garbage, Salt-n-Pepa, and the like, although the only truly groan-worthy moment is the non-diegetic use of No Doubt’s “Just a Girl” during a climactic fight scene.

It’s a choice that reflects not only the film’s skin-deep 1990s infatuation but also its lip-service feminism. On the one hand, Larson’s amnesiac space warrior is one of the more agreeably understated and human protagonists in the MCU’s run to date, her tabula rasa qualities notwithstanding, a hero whose arc borrows elements from Captain America: The First Avenger (2011) and Loki’s backstory in the first Thor feature (2011). However, when the screenwriters attempt to use Carol’s story to highlight the universal tribulations that women encounter – the barriers, the underestimation, and the never-ending condescension – their efforts come off as timid, shallow, and vaguely tin-eared. There are, undeniably, some authentically rousing girl-power moments in the film, especially a trailer-spoiled montage of Carol at different ages, rising again and again from defeat. (A feminist-flavored Raiders of the Lost Ark-indebted gag at the film’s tail end is also a highlight.) Mostly, however, the feature’s gender politics feel like a bit of a pose: too superficial to convey the source material’s fiercely feminist mythology – again, the Wonder Woman film makes for a sharp contrast – and too desperate for applause for it to be regarded as sincere.

None of this is to say that Captain Marvel is a failure as a work of escapist entertainment or as a revelation-packed chapter in the never-ending MCU saga. The filmmakers do manage to answer some nagging questions and ostensible plot-holes that have persisted since the first Avengers film, at times with a cheeky sense of humor. For Marvel aficionados, the sight of an unflappable pre-eyepatch Nick Fury tooling around in a boxy American sedan or belting out a Motown standard in cracking falsetto is practically worth the ticket price all on its own. However, only MCU completionists and pre-minted fans of Carol Danvers will likely have much in the way of durable enthusiasm for Captain Marvel, especially as it becomes apparent that the film’s visuals, action, and storytelling are simply “good enough” — albeit just barely.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Greta'.
March 6, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Tale as Old as Time

2018 / Ireland, USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Neil Jordan / Opened in select cities on March 1, 2019

Neil Jordan’s Greta is unlikely to replicate the sensation of his breakout neo-noir, The Crying Game (1992). That feature helped usher in a wave of independently produced films going quasi-mainstream, with its modest success and cultural cachet predicated on a much-publicized twist that would (rightfully) not play out so well these days. What surrounded that reveal was an amalgamation of Out of the Past (1947) and Vertigo (1958), a tale of a death-haunted man whose violent past interrupts a newfound obsession. Exquisitely performed and written, it earned Jordan an Original Screenplay Oscar in 1993.

Compared to Jordan’s calling-card film, there’s nothing quite so fresh about Greta, a routine thriller only elevated by some taut craftsmanship and a central performance from everyone’s favorite working European actress, Isabelle Huppert. She plays the titular middle-aged, disinclined loner, a French piano teacher (Huppert’s second portrayal of that profession after her incendiary turn in Michael Haneke’s aptly titled 2011 film The Piano Teacher). Greta meets the young and plucky Frances (Chloë Grace Moretz) when she returns the older woman’s lost clutch.

Frances is new to New York City, having just moved from Boston and into a Manhattan loft with her uninhibited best friend, Erica (Maika Monroe, lead of It Follows [2014]). Her roomie chastises the naive Frances for even picking up the purse in the first place, suggesting packages left behind in NYC subways are best dealt with by bomb squads. Erica is suspicious of Greta, sight unseen, due to her interest in Frances. Even when flurries of late-night text messages from Greta begin appearing on her phone, Frances is still endeared to the lonely older woman, having just lost her own mother. She identifies with the familial absences in Greta’s life, and the two begin to form a tight-knit bond.

That bond, however, turns tenuous after a wine-fueled dinner in Greta’s apartment during which Frances discovers a cupboard filled to the brim with duplicate handbags – each affixed with a sticky note listing the names and phone numbers of various women. Greta veers quickly into Single White Female (1992) territory –  largely and thankfully foregoing the problematic killer-lesbian trope of that film – by mounting increasingly nerve-jangling set pieces of Greta’s psychotic obsession with Frances. Voicemails and text messages begin to accumulate as Frances avoids her would-be stalker, triggering, in a highlight of the film, Greta to go full table-flipping Teresa Giudice in the middle of the restaurant where Frances works.

In these escalations, Jordan’s film is at its best, exemplifying the economy of the 1980s and 1990s Hollywood thrillers to which his film is indebted, albeit with a classical approach. But Greta also has a tongue planted firmly in cheek, especially when it comes to its titular character’s behavior and Huppert’s performance. Axial cuts of Greta lurking outside the restaurant elicit more laughs than trembles, and her twinkle-toed ballet just before she performs a particularly dastardly act is presented with gleeful abandon: Huppert hasn’t had this much fun with a role since David O. Russell’s I Heart Huckabees (2004).

Meanwhile, her counterpart, Moretz, is as thuddingly performative as ever. The actor, always prone to back-of-the-house actorly tics and dead line readings, has rarely elevated herself beyond her contemporaries in terms of craft, but filmmakers nevertheless persist in curiously choosing her for high-profile projects. Only Olivier Assayas and Luca Guadagnino have used her to their benefit by casting her as a bratty movie star in Clouds of Sils Maria (2014) and a zombie in Suspiria (2018), respectively.

Because of this, Greta lacks an audience proxy, forcing the viewer to both root for and be repelled by its villain. Maybe that’s Jordan and co-screenwriter Ray Wright’s purpose, as the mix of horror and comedy points to them working in a satirical mode, justifying a Hitchcockian complicity in audience identification with bad behavior. However, other than cheap shots at Millennials – Erica’s trend-hopping is a running gag straight out of a Boomer’s brain – what’s actually being satirized is unclear. If anything, Greta and Frances’ programming toward honoring a nuclear-family unit is what causes their downfall, but those motivations feel necessary only as plot device rather than as threads sewing this pastiche together.

Instead, Greta is best looked at as a modern Grimm Brothers fairy-tale update, and the third-act “twist” reveals this probable inspiration. The eponymous stalker becomes the Big Bad Wolf or, more appropriately, the witch of “Hansel and Gretel” (which sounds quite a bit like “Frances and Greta”). The film’s glossy veneer certainly supports the idea by luring its audience into a twisted web through color-coded fantasy, but those oft-told tales still resonate because of their didactic purpose. Greta unfortunately lacks one.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Braid'.
February 26, 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.

Braid

2018 / USA / 82 min. / Dir. by Mitzi Peirone / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 1, 2019

With a potentially fatal drug debt looming over their heads, prickly party girls Petula (Imogen Waterhouse) and Tilda (Sarah Hay) devise a Hail Mary solution: robbing their mentally disturbed childhood friend, Daphne (Cam’s Madeline Brewer), who dwells alone in the moldering New England mansion where the trio once played as children. However, this betrayal requires that the prodigals re-immerse themselves in Daphne’s surreal imaginary world, where skin-crawling mockeries of twee role-play scenarios are governed by violent, arbitrary rules. Writer-director Mitzi’s Perione’s hallucinatory debut feature doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense, which is both its most frustrating flaw and its greatest asset. Freely plucking scenarios and motifs from Alice in Wonderland, Great Expectations, and Psycho, Perione creates a debauched atmosphere where the boundaries between reality, fantasy, and outright nightmare dissolve in a blur of psychosexual weirdness. The plot might be lethally obfuscated by the filmmaker’s approach, but there’s still something seductive about the film’s uniquely feminine vision of treehouse horror. Rating: B- [Now available to stream from Hoopla and to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Piercing

2018 / USA / 81 min. / Dir. by Nicolas Pesce / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 1, 2019

Long before it begins quoting musically from Italian horror classics like The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972) and Deep Red (1975), it’s apparent that the sophomore feature from writer-director Nicolas Pesce (The Eyes of My Mother) is drunk on its own heightened, giallo-indebted style. There’s some Japanese DNA in Piercing as well, partly retained from the 2007 Ryū Murakami novel of the same name, partly discernible in the film’s allusions to In the Realm of the Senses (1976) and Audition (1999). Seeking an outlet for his bloodthirsty compulsions, uptight family man Reed (Christopher Abbott) secures the services of an enigmatic prostitute, Jackie (Mia Wasikowska). She almost immediately derails his fussy homicidal preparations, however, drawing him into her own disturbed world over the course of a single phantasmagorical evening. Although undeniably striking from an aesthetic standpoint – the deliberately phony model skylines are a particularly memorable touch – Piercing is dragged down by the repetitive, ultimately vacuous cat-and-mouse games that preoccupy its supremely twisted couple. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Velvet Buzzsaw

2019 / USA / 113 min. / Dir. by Dan Gilroy / Premiered online on Feb 1, 2019

Writer-director Dan Gilroy (Nightcrawler) plainly had a lot of fun creating Velvet Buzzsaw, a self-consciously garish B-picture in which the ruthless, pretentious denizens of LA’s contemporary-art world – the gallery owners, agents, dealers, critics, and other hangers-on – are murdered by supernaturally cursed works of art. Unfortunately, Gilroy’s palpable glee over this karmic bloodletting doesn’t translate into any actual satire, even though he and his overstuffed cast treat the material completely straight, echoing Ruben Östlund’s superior (and much funnier) modern-art send-up, The Square (2017). What the viewer is left with, then, is a half-baked work of shambolic horror-kitsch, one that is barely functional as a story but still enjoyable for its moments of fleeting midnight-movie madness. (A platinum-wigged Toni Collette having her arm amputated by a malfunctioning “discovery sphere” installation is a highlight.) Watching the A-list cast – including a scene-stealing Jake Gyllenhaal as a narcissistic art critic – stumble through the Art Basel version of a Final Destination picture isn’t without its pleasures. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror

2019 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Xavier Burgin / Premiered online on Feb 7, 2019

The first original documentary produced by streaming service Shudder, Horror Noire is as aesthetically unremarkable as any given VH1 nostalgia-thon, consisting almost entirely of film clips and a cavalcade of talking heads. Fortunately, director Xavier Burgin doesn’t need to do anything flashy, given that his subject is intrinsically intriguing and his interview subjects – an authoritative array of actors, directors, writers, critics, and historians – are suitably insightful and enthusiastic. Adapted and condensed from Robin R. Means Coleman’s book of the same name, Horror Noire hustles through the history of African-American horror cinema from the medium’s beginnings through the present, highlighting the ways in which the genre has demonized, idealized, and dissected blackness and the black experience. Although it engages in its share of breezy box-checking, Burgin’s film is dense with both trenchant observations and revelatory “forgotten lore,” such that even horror obsessives will inevitably learn something new. Indeed, the primary takeaway is that the topic could benefit from a more sober, long-form docuseries. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

St. Agatha

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Darren Lynn Bousman / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb. 8, 2019

Although it relies on a dank, spectral atmosphere and familiar religious-horror motifs, director Darren Lynn Bousman’s St. Agatha is more of a slow-boil Southern-gothic thriller than an outright nunsploitation scare-fest. In 1950s small-town Georgia, broke and pregnant con artist Mary (Sabrina Kern) turns to a religious order that provides room and board to “unfortunates.” The convent’s nuns demand rigid obedience in return for their charity, but Mary quickly discerns that the sisters are up to something more sinister than workaday Catholic zealotry. Bousman’s feature engages in the usual post-Conjuring creepshow theatrics, but these amount to a misdirection tactic. They conceal a ludicrous but unremarkable captivity thriller, one that pits Mary against the banal evil of the order’s sadistic Mother Superior (Carolyn Hennesy). Despite solid performances, the film is swallowed by endless, ambiguous scenes of haunted-house strangeness, punctuated with brutal passages of emotional and physical abuse. The result is suffocating and monotonous, and never adequately counterbalanced by the feature’s clunkily expressed theme of liberation. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

The Changeover

2017 / New Zealand / 95 min. / Dir. by Miranda Harcourt and Stuart McKenzie / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Feb 22, 2019

To better distinguish themselves in a saturated genre, adaptations of YA fantasy novels often overextend themselves with respect to idiosyncratic world-building. It’s refreshing, then, that the horror-tinged coming-of-age tale The Changeover takes such a restrained approach, limiting itself to a handful of characters in a relatively grounded suburban New Zealand setting. Adapting Margaret Mahy’s 1984 novel of the same name – and giving it a faintly post-apocalyptic spin by setting it in the aftermath of the devastating 2011 Christchurch earthquake – the filmmakers rely on familiar fantasy components, such as curses, demons, witches, and ritual magic. However, the story of psychically sensitive teenager Laura Chant (Erana James) and her efforts to rescue her young brother from a parasitic entity has a persuasively edgy, forlorn tone that vibrates with the feminine energy of a PG-13 version of the 2018 Suspiria. It helps that the great Timothy Spall portrays the human-seeming monster, Mr. Braque, whom the actor imbues with a menace and ambiguity that was absent from his unctuous Harry Potter villain. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, PlayStation, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'To Dust'.
February 25, 2019
By Cait Lore

Don't Fear the Reaper

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir by Shawn Snyder / Opened in select cities on Feb. 8, 2019; locally on Feb. 22, 2019

When his wife died, Shmuel (Géza Röhrig), a Hasidic jew, first sought comfort in his faith, dutifully committed to its mourning rituals. He tore into the fabric of his jacket, a practice known as keriah. Following the Taharah ritual, he had her remains washed and purified and dressed her in a tachrichim for her funeral. And then, when Shmuel and his sons (Leo Heller and Sammy Voit) laid her to rest, they buried her in a simple pinewood coffin, one with three small holes drilled into its base, so that her soul might find peace as it returns to the earth.

There is no peace for Shmuel, however. Nightmares of his wife’s decaying corpse bedevil him. “Last night it was her toe,” he confides in his rabbi (Bern Cohen). “The nail had browned and cracked, bent back like a leaf.” It has been 30 days, observes the rabbi. Shloshim has come to a close. Now is the time to mend the jacket, return to the children, and move on with one’s life. When Shmuel speaks to his mother, it’s more of the same. Their words don’t reach him. It’s as if they’re speaking through water. 

Consumed by grief, Shmuel begins to pull away from his family and his religion, receding further into his tormented mind. Has his wife’s body begun to decompose? Has her soul met the earth yet? Has it found peace? His thoughts are clouded by questions. Questions that, he believes, demand answers. Shmuel’s young boys would like some certainty as well. Their father, a cantor, no longer fills the house with song. They know of his nightmares, of course, and they whisper to each other at night, about how their father spends his afternoons poring over his wife’s belongings. The boys are merely children and aren’t sure how to make sense of their father’s grieving process. They believe the other children who claim that their father is possessed by a dybbuk — a spirit of the dead, likely their mother.

Choosing to venture outside his community, Shmuel knowingly commits a grave sin. He wanders into the everyday world, even choosing a funeral parlor of all places, to ask perfect strangers if his wife’s neshamah — her soul — feels pain. No one knows what to say, of course, and when he asks if she is “dismantling the earth,” their reactions are much the same. The absurdity of the situation hangs over every scene, giving way to To Dust’s rather bewildering ambitions of being a fish-out-of-water comedy. From here on out, Shmuel is more Homer Simpson than the Rev. Toller.

Soon enough, a bumbling Shmuel finds his way into a classroom, standing in front of Albert (Matthew Broderick), a science professor at the local community college. It’s Shmuel’s instinct to pummel the sad-sack professor with his usual questions, and it’s Albert’s inclination to edge toward the door. In spite of how weirded-out he is, however, Albert can’t seem to turn his back on Shmuel. It seems that Albert, a man who cares for nothing, is drawn to something in Shmuel; it’s something that the former man either never had or has long forgotten. Whatever it is, audiences will find themselves doing the heavy lifting for To Dust’s patchy script.

With precious little to bind them but a film that must go on, Shmuel and Albert (who calls his newfound companion “Shmell” and thinks he’s a rabbi) conduct a series of “wacky” science experiments, some of which involve labored slapstick. When Smuel brings a live pig into Albert’s home — wait, doesn’t Homer Simpson do this too? — audiences will question just how stupid To Dust wants them to think its main character is.

Despite the spectacularly unfunny script, Röhrig and Broderick are an absolute delight. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off (1986) and Election (1999) serve as clear reference points for Broderick’s casting, and it works well. For a character with seemingly no personal life or interests, Albert is immediately familiar. Brockerick plays his character like a tired, worse-for-wear Jim McAllister; re-meeting Broderick in this way helps define a character whose motivations are ambiguous at best.

Yet it’s Röhrig’s performance that not only carries the film forward but also shines a spotlight on To Dust’s most appealing attributes. Managing the film’s bizarre shifts in tone is a responsibility that falls squarely on Röhrig’s shoulders. The humor is broad, maybe even problematic. (One can’t help but wonder how a Hasidic Jew would feel about this representation.) When To Dust strains for comedy, however, Röhrig bends with it. Although he can’t save the jokes from falling flat, his multifaceted performance never lets go of a very real ache that runs through the heart of the film.

Despite its many shortcomings, To Dust brings a pure-hearted approach to its unconventional narrative techniques. In an early scene, Albert takes Shmuel to the campus library. They read from a book about forensic taphonomy. Albert opens to a chapter on pigs — a human’s closest biological relative — detailing the act of decay, the ways in which maggots might take up residence, and a grisly phenomenon known as “skin slippage.” It’s ghoulish stuff, sure, but To Dust isn’t going for shock; its line of inquiry is sincere. For Shmuel, breaking from a standardized grieving process and confronting the earthly realities of death brings a strange comfort, allows the fullness of life to return to him. And for Albert, witnessing Shmuel’s journey is a transformative experience.

These are precious insights coming from a film that’s likely to be one of the more audacious pieces of work this year. As hard as it might try, To Dust fails to score big laughs. It may, however, mend a heart.

Grade: C+

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The Favourite'.
February 22, 2019
By Joshua Ray

This Year's Oscar Contenders, from Worst to Best

Best Popular Film. No Best Popular Film. No host. Kevin Hart. No host, again. Gaga and Kendrick only. All song nominees, but just a little bit of them. Cut the boring awards no one cares about. Oh, wait, everyone cares about them. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for all it’s worth, sure knows how to give a good pre-show, whiplash notwithstanding. This has been a seriously contentious award season unlike any in recent memory. The Oscars have been making headlines beyond the awards gossip sites, even more than 2015’s #OscarsSoWhite and the great Envelope-gate that was the bungled 2017 ceremony.

Beyond the sturm und drang of ABC’s poorly handled attempts to make Oscar relevant again, the Academy Award nominees across all categories are a wildly diverse set of films, ranging from populist favorites to critical darlings to, well, Vice. Although the seemingly daily tragicomical dithering about ceremony logistics has dominated the news, it’s the nominees themselves that have elicited contention and hand-wringing among serious awards-watchers.

Since the Best Picture field was widened from a possible five nominees to up to 10 nominees after The Dark Knight was snubbed in 2009, the reconfiguration has mostly seemed to have benefited on-the-cusp indies. Features such as  2017’s Lion and 2018’s Call Me by Your Name can score a spot on the shortlist for cinema’s biggest prize without ever having a realistic chance of winning. This expansion of the nominee pool notwithstanding, the Best Picture races in subsequent years have still featured either clear front-runners or neck-and-neck rivals.

This year, however, the case for the win could be made for any of the eight nominees. Roma is the critical favorite and the most nominated foreign-language film ever with 10 nods. It’s tied for the most nominations of 2019 with a film actually named The Favourite. A Star Is Born and Bohemian Rhapsody are unqualified box-office hits, the former headlined by a high-profile pop star and the latter about a deceased one. Black Panther is even more of a money-maker, being one of the highest-grossing Best Picture nominees ever. Green Book and BlacKkKlansman are hits on their own scales, and both check the “period piece” box Oscar voters seem to favor, although they’re catering to very different sectors within the Academy. Then there’s Vice, a film that didn’t find an audience or critical favor, but feels engineered to win over Oscar voters. So far, it’s worked, pulling in copious “pre-Oscar” awards nominations, as well as wins for star Christian Bale at the Golden Globes and Critics’ Choice Awards.

After the ceremony airs this Sunday and the awards-season hangover clears, the 2019 Best Picture hopefuls will be the group of nominees most worth dissecting, in terms of reflecting contemporary politics and culture -- much like the 1968 lineup Mark Harris used as a jumping-off point for his seminal book on New Hollywood, Pictures at a Revolution. The comparison between 2019 and 1968 even goes beyond zeitgeist-tapping and into the divergent quality of the films selected for Best Picture for both years, with the 1968 group also featuring future classics (In the Heat of the Night, The Graduate), misguided Important Pictures (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?), pop trailblazers (Bonnie and Clyde), and one of the worst-ever films to be slotted for the big prize (Doctor Dolittle). The parallels to 2019 can be found below in ascending order of quality, from (spoiler alert) a bad Queen biopic to a bad-queen “biopic.”

8. Bohemian Rhapsody

What’s the most offensive thing about this castrated biopic of everyone’s favorite anthemic pop-rock band, Queen, and its frontman, Freddie Mercury? Is it the hackneyed scripting? The piecemeal editing (see: now viral establishing shots of chairs), likely attributable to the film’s troubled production? Is it the flashy yet empty direction that attempts to seduce the viewer into believing they’re watching a film and not an overlong Behind the Music installment? Is it the most praised aspect of the film, Rami Malek’s lead performance, which looks and sounds like an audition for a Batman villain Bane prequel, complete with inane vocal tics, facial obstruction (those exaggerated teeth!), and dead-behind-the-eyes blankness? Or is it the fact that the film’s persona non grata director sublimates his own disgusting worldview by equating Mercury’s queer identity with his ultimate downfall? For all of these reasons and more, Bohemian Rhapsody is one of the most deplorable Hollywood products in recent memory.

7. Green Book

Director Peter Farrelly attempts to “heal the wounds” of a divided America, but instead tips his hand at his own white-liberal ignorance. Green Book is not only an old-fashioned, treacly, and moldy vision of the past, but it’s also capably made and performed, which makes its existence all the more insidious. This wolf in sheep’s clothing chooses to tell the story of black classical pianist Don Shirley Jr.’s (Mahershala Ali) trip across the Jim Crow South through the eyes of his racist (and racially stereotyped) white driver, Tony (Viggo Mortensen as a Mario Brother). The perspective is certainly a problem, but the logical dissonance in endearing the two to each other without truly addressing the black experience, the queer experience, or the black queer experience is simply appalling.

6. Vice

Of the three bad Drunk History episodes featured on this list, Vice is the least offensive, but its existence is the most baffling. This overblown and undercooked screed against former VP Dick Cheney and the heedless quest for power in the American political system fails to be particularly funny or thought-provoking, especially when director and screenwriter Adam McKay haphazardly employs the same distancing didacticism he used in his somewhat better The Big Short (2015). His purpose may be to illuminate the present by exploring the horrors of a not-so-distant past, but the real show is witnessing the steady parade of SNL-level impersonations by Hollywood stars, ranking from a pound-packed Christian Bale doing his best talking-from-the-side-of-his-mouth mimicry to an embarrassing Tyler Perry as Colin Powell.

5. A Star Is Born

What’s most disappointing about actor Bradley Cooper’s directorial debut is that it eventually falls so deep into the, ahem, shallow that it thuddingly grounds what soared in its first act. Of course, Ally’s (Lady Gaga) rise to fame with the help of her rock-star lover, Jackson (Cooper), was bound to be more intoxicating than the inevitable downfall, but who knew the new director was capable of making his audience so drunk in love during the film’s first half? Later rote mechanics and questionable gender politics aside, A Star Is Born is nevertheless fueled by Gaga and Cooper’s palpable chemistry, with the latter giving his best performance yet. (Read the Lens review here.)

4. Roma

A silver-screen experience unlike any other from 2018, the virtues of Alfonso Cuarón’s black-and-white panorama Roma have already been litigated at length here at the Lens. This 1970s Mexico City memory palace is intricately devised, but the purpose of its cinematic brawn and the rift between its stoic perspective and heartstring-tugging turns remain curious. Alternatively transportative – its beach-scene climax is truly stunning and possibly the key to unlocking its mysteries – and dull – the camera moves left, the camera moves right, continue – Roma is respectable film-school fodder for the ages. (Read the Lens review here.)

3. BlacKkKlansman

As brash as its maker, Spike Lee’s exhilarating BlacKkKlansman finds the provocateur back in popcorn mode after more than a decade in the indie wilderness. His last foray into blockbuster territory, bank heist-cum-American capitalism missive Inside Man (2006), was far more subtle and subversive in exploring societal imbalances in the United States, while this tale of a black cop (John David Washington) who infiltrates the Klu Klux Klan during the 1970s foregrounds polemics over Hollywood product. Lee does get bogged down in his own confused politics, with some hotly contested choices working (the Charleston coda) and other oddball moves (Alec Baldwin prologue) reeking of nose-thumbing condescension. What’s in between, however, nearly approaches the best filmmaking of Lee’s career.

2. Black Panther

Black Panther is, in fact, as revolutionary as its rabid fandom would have it. Not only does the Marvel film finally give black filmmakers an opportunity to fully realize a black superhero on the same scale white superheros have been afforded, but the very conditions that prevented its far-too-delayed realization are also built into the film’s narrative. To that end, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) and T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) fight not only a physical war but also an ideological one that challenges each to reckon with their black identities and the sovereignty of Wakanda. This shimmery lightning bolt is a righteous revisionist superhero film unfortunately too tied to its MCU roots. Marvel’s peculiar house style of waxy over-digitization and pre-visualization prevents director Ryan Coogler from transcending the genre, but hopefully its success means that the future Coogler-helmed sequel will be an even bigger game-changer than this one. Wakanda forever, indeed. (Read the Lens review here.)

1. The Favourite

If Vice is a complete miscalculation regarding the dangers of power, then Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite thankfully gets the formula right. Luring the viewer into its wicked pomp and circumstance with gloriously ostentatious execution, Lanthimos points his jaundiced vision to the erratic and gouty Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her entitled right hand Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), scheming social climber Abigail (Emma Stone), and their constantly-in-flux carousel of sex and power. Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara’s script is also bitingly funny and particularly succinct in realizing what drives the human psyche: “I like when she puts her tongue in me.” The film’s ribald and rollicking unfurling – perfectly encapsulated by its top IMDb plot keywords, including “throwing blood oranges at someone,” “dragged by a horse,” “hand job,” “female nudity,” and “wig” – are reasons The Favourite will remain meme-able and quotable after the 2019 awards-season dust settles. However, its deserved crowning as an instant classic is shored up in its unabashed queerness and in the negotiations its women characters make to balance love, trust, and pain.

The 2019 Academy Awards ceremony airs Sunday, Feb. 24, at 7 p.m. CST on ABC.

Tags: Ranked Joshua Ray

A still from 'How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World'.
February 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Draco Libre

2019 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Dean DeBlois / Opens in wide release on Feb. 22, 2019

There have been two unfailingly consistent bright spots in the 20-plus years’ worth of animated theatrical features produced by Dreamworks Animation. The first is the Kung Fu Panda series (2008-16), whose silly cartoon animals and underdog-sports-flick tropes conceal a trilogy of deliriously entertaining martial-arts films set in a richly textured mythic China. The second is the How to Train Your Dragon franchise (2010-19), which, under the steady yet fanciful guidance of writer-director Dean DeBlois, has been revealed as a wacky but thrilling adventure series that doubles as a sensitive allegory about the relationship between animals and humankind. Given that the aesthetically triumphant (and still-underappreciated) Kung Fu Panda 3 wrapped up the saga of Po the Dragon Warrior so enjoyably in 2016, there is a bit of trepidation surrounding the arrival of How to Train Your Dragon’s concluding chapter. The sheer consistency exhibited by the two preceding Dragon features – in terms of the quality of animation, design, and storytelling, not to mention their distinctive but modest tonal equipoise – feels like an increasingly rare and precious thing in 21st-century studio animation. How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World is accordingly positioned to either enshrine or dash the series’ legacy.

Happily, the third Dragon feature does the franchise proud, at least in terms of its most vital selling points: eye-popping design, soaring animated action, and a poignant thematic core that builds quite splendidly on the beats of its predecessors. Disappointingly, however, The Hidden World tends to fumble some of the storytelling and comedic fundamentals that the first two films approached with such creamy self-assurance. Like Kung Fu Panda 3 – but to a more distracting extent – the latest Dragon is an unaccountably lumpy film, lacking the narrative sleekness that was one of the low-key pleasures of the franchise up to this point. The Hidden World also leans harder on the broad, shrill character humor that has always been one of the series’ weaker aspects, expanding what should have been dopey throwaway jokes into lethally unfunny extended gags. It is therefore a credit to DeBlois and the entire Dreamworks team that this concluding Dragon film ends up being such a touching endpoint to the series, despite these flaws. The way that The Hidden World wraps up the story of unlikely dragon rider Hiccup and his loyal steed Toothless is somewhat unexpected, but in retrospect it’s the only way that the saga could have concluded while retaining its honest, heartfelt essence.

Picking up roughly a year after the events of the second film, The Hidden World finds the indefatigable Hiccup (Jay Baruchel) and the Night Fury dragon Toothless leading daring raids against an increasingly active and far-flung contingent of dragon trappers. Having ascended to the chieftainship of the Viking village of Berk after the death of his father, Stoick, Hiccup has aggressively set himself to the task of rescuing the world’s myriad dragon species from human exploitation. Assisting him in this endeavor are his fellow dragon riders: his mother Valka (Cate Blanchett), a warrior-shaman and dragon savant in her own right; his battle-maiden girlfriend Astrid (America Ferrera); the strapping reformed dragon trapper Eret (Kit Harington); and Hiccup’s original coming-of-age cohort, consisting of Snotlout (Jonah Hill), Fishlegs (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), and fraternal twins Ruffnut (Kristen Wiig) and Tuffnut (Justin Rupple).

Although Hiccup’s strike team has its bumbling moments, these forays have been so succesful that Berk is starting to feel the strain of draconic overpopulation. The village has been impressively and ingeniously modified over the years to accommodate its scaly residents, and the formerly sleepy Berk is now an undeniably crowded and chaotic place to live, where humans rub shoulders with swarms of dragons of every imaginable shape and size. In a sense, Hiccup’s home has become a victim of its own success, and while the young chief is at least partly in denial about this fact, Berk is now a juicy target for ambitious dragon hunters.

The most dangerous of these is Grimmel the Grisly (F. Murray Abraham), a droll and cunning fiend who proudly boasts of hunting the world’s Night Furies to the brink of extinction. On hearing that Berk’s dragon-loving chief rides such a creature, Grimmel sets his sights on Toothless – and, by extension, all the village’s dragons, as Toothless’ alpha status ensures that Berk’s draconic population follow him. Unfortunately, Grimmel has an ace up his sleeve in the form of a female Light Fury, a related breed of dragon that resembles a pearly-white, eel-smooth Night Fury. Grimmel also commands a sextet of scorpion-like Deathgripper dragons, creatures cruelly drugged into obdience with their own potent venom. One attack by these fearsome beasts is all the motivation Hiccup needs to initiate a long-gestating plan. Guided by little more than sketchy legends once related by his late father, Hiccup organizes a mass exodus of Berk to the fabled Hidden World, an eldritch dragon nesting ground allegedly located at the far edge of the ocean. His hope is that Berk’s dragons and humans will be able to live together peacefully in this sanctuary, unmolested by dragon-hating outsiders.

The Hidden World is thus revealed as a sort of Promised Land story, and although – at the risk of slight spoilers – the titular realm is indeed a physical place, its true significance is that of a plot-pushing MacGuffin, an idealized destination for the characters to strive toward. Unfortunately, writer-director DeBlois has some difficulty maintaining the ruthless focus that a literally linear story such as this demands, cluttering up the plot with a glut of back-and-forth action and some very hazy geography. (The spatial relationships and distances between important locales – the village of Berk, Grimmel’s fortress, the dragon trappers’ armada, a waystation island, and others – are distractingly messy, even for an animated fantasy.) The film simply feels narratively shaggy in a way that its predecessors rather elegantly avoided, and as such it can’t help but feel relatively disappointing. Even when DeBlois’ indulgent streak pays amusing dividends – such as extended wordless sequence in which Toothless haplessly courts his Light Fury crush – it comes at the expense of the trimness that made previous Dragons such pleasing pop morsels.

Even more frustrating is the extent to which The Hidden World allows its crass secondary characters to run roughshod over the film’s comedic tone. Craig Ferguson’s garrulous blacksmith Gobber remains a highlight, as usual, but the clueless blustering of Snoutlout, Ruffnut, and Tuffnut is wearisome to the point of being interminable. The overbearing teen wannabe dragon slayers of the original film were always its least entertaining aspect, but in small doses they at least were a source of mild, groan-inducing amusement. The Hidden World expands these now-adult characters’ lines and screen time, a questionable move that unfortunately echoes the “Mater-fication” problem that plagued Pixar’s Cars 2 (2011). The results range from unfunny and icky (Snoutlout’s flop-sweaty and age-inappropriate efforts to woo Hiccup’s mom) to unfunny and leaden (Tuffnut’s inexplicable insistence on being Hiccup’s romantic mentor) to unfunny and exhausting (Ruffnut pretty much all the time).

These missteps are dispiriting but hardly fatal, especially considering how thrillingly the film fulfills the series’ more defining features. As a feat of animation and design, The Hidden World is everything a capstone Dragon feature should be. It not only reflects the technological advancements that have occurred over the past decade or so, but also serves as a giddy continuation of and elaboration on the franchise’s commitment to its cartoonish, Dark Ages-flavored fantasy visuals. It surely comes as no surprise that a 2019 animated film is light-years beyond its 2010 predecessor in the depiction of grass, hair, metal, cloth, scales, water, sand, and even a toddler’s slightly runny nose, but it’s still mightily impressive to witness the bright attention to detail that has become a hallmark of the series.

The film’s artists – led by production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent, returning from the second film – continue to realize the setting with an extravagance that feels both wondrous and suitably lived-in, from the anarchic riot of color and motion that characterizes the dragon-packed Berk to the colorful, pebbly dragon-scale armor donned by Hiccup and his fellow riders. One notable small-scale delight is the character design of Grimmel: a vampiric figure whose jocular, self-possessed menace is ornamented by little touches such as his thin, chapped lips and unruly shock of white hair. As one might expect, the legendary Hidden World is also a highlight, being an Avatar-like subterranean wonderland of phosphorescent fungus, luminous crystals, and dizzying swarms of fantastic creatures. Cinematographer Roger Deakins once again serves as the series’ visual consultant, and his virtuosic understanding of light and color is apparent in practically every frame of the film.

Consistent with the Kung Fu Panda series, the How to Train Your Dragon films have always been superior action films – better, in truth, than most contemporary live-action features – and The Hidden World is no exception. Like its predecessors, the third film is the rare theatrical feature whose appropriately free-wheeling sense of space and motion makes fine use of the remastered 3D IMAX format. The dizzying aerial chases and battles are, naturally, a reliable high point, but there’s a claustrophobic set piece set inside a hellish, chain-link labyrinth that capably showcases the flip side of the film’s visual sensibility, with the heroes scrambling through nooks and crannies to evade the gouts of green acid belched forth by Grimmel’s Deathgrippers.

At bottom, however, the factors that makes the Dragon franchise something more than a competent-but-unremarkable animated fantasy saga are the series’ emotional poignancy and allegorical forcefulness. The improbable connection between human and dragon has always been the dynamo that drives the films – as embodied in the image of Hiccup’s open palm tentatively coming to rest on Toothless’ curious snout. The Hidden World regards this relationship seriously but with clear eyes, and as a result the third film winds up concluding the series in a manner that is somewhat melancholy and bittersweet. While The Hidden World engages in its share of tear-jerking, it never feels unearned or calculating, consistently proceeding from a place of frank affection for the characters and the bonds they’ve established.

“Loss is part of the deal that comes with love,” Stoick (Gerard Butler) says to a young Hiccup in a flashback sequence, and although the burly chieftain was speaking of his presumed-dead wife, the point applies to the Berkians’ relationship with their dragons – and, by extension, humans’ relationship with animals in the real world. The How to Train Your Dragon films have always been at least partly message pictures about the virtues of giving living creatures the attention, affection, and dignity they deserve, as expressed through a misfit pioneer spirit. Even if Dreamworks never quite intended for the original Dragon feature to serve as a fanciful metaphor for the pre-historical process of domestication, it works splendidly on such a level. The Hidden World takes this metaphor to its admittedly tough-minded conclusion, positing that there comes a time when putting the needs of another living thing above one’s own comfort and desires becomes, if not a moral imperative, then at least the Right Thing to Do. The fantastical and unambiguously intelligent nature of the film’s dragon species allows for an ethical clarity that is not often found in the real world, but The Hidden World isn’t aiming to be anything so strident as, say, an Okja-style appeal for veganism. It is, rather, a plea to think carefully and self-critically about relationships of all sorts, but especially those with creatures that can’t speak for themselves.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Happy Death Day 2U'.
February 12, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Déjà Vu All Over Again

2019 / USA / 100 min. / Dir. by Christopher Landon / Opens in wide release on Feb. 13, 2019

[Note: This review includes major spoilers for the 2017 film Happy Death Day.]

There’s a nagging irony pulsing at the heart of the 2017 horror-comedy sleeper hit Happy Death Day. In that film, Louisiana coed Theresa “Tree” Gelbman (Jessica Rothe) finds that she has been unaccountably damned to continually relive the day of her own murder – dying repeatedly at the hands of a mysterious, masked killer. Like Phil Connors in Harold Ramis’ now-beloved 1993 feature Groundhog Day, Tree eventually resolves to use her Sisyphean circumstances as an opportunity for self-improvement. The perspective gleaned from dying over and over allows Tree to evolve from a petulant, self-absorbed party girl to a halfway-decent person. Oddly, this moral growth proves to be almost incidental to the murder plot: Tree doesn’t so much solve her own slaying as eventually blunder into the realization that the killer is her secretly jealous and deranged sorority-house roommate Lori (Ruby Modine). It’s the sort of subtle narrative disconnect that can be attributed to ordinary sloppiness or intentional absurdity, depending on how generous one is feeling toward the screenplay.

What’s more, Happy Death Day never bothers to explain Tree’s slasher-film loop – like Phil’s Pennsylvania purgatory, it’s just something weird and inexplicable that happens – nor why evading death by preemptively shoving Lori out a window ultimately unsticks Tree in time. The film works largely due to the simplicity of its elevator-pitch conceit, the gallows fun director Christopher Landon and writer Scott Lobdell have with that premise, and especially Rothe’s star-worthy comedic turn. She elevates a relatively unpolished mean-girl-turned-final-girl role through sheer charisma and a delightfully committed, expressive performance. One could even go so far as to say that Rothe’s take is better (or at least more engaged) than Bill Murray’s in Groundhog Day, given that the latter actor never quite manages to shed his trademark above-it-all contemptuousness.

Ultimately, Happy Death Day is barely a horror film, masked-killer tropes and Blumhouse Productions logo notwithstanding. The feature is more of a PG-13 comedy-thriller with horror elements – a combination that is infinitely more interested in capitalizing on viewers’ familiarity with genre formulae than in scaring them outright. Moreover, unlike the characters in Wes Craven’s meta-slasher franchise Scream (1996-2011), HDD’s characters don’t seem to be aware of B-movie conventions. The only other film mentioned in the screenplay is Groundhog Day itself, referenced solely to set up a final, gratuitous punchline: Tree has never seen it. The dorm-room posters of nice-guy love interest Carter (Israel Broussard) do, however, hint at director Landon’s pop-cultural touchstones: Repo Man (1984), Back to the Future (1985), and They Live (1988).

It’s therefore not entirely unexpected that those films and other 1980s influences are at the forefront of Happy Death Day 2U, given that Landon serves as both director and screenwriter for the sequel. What is surprising is how definitively HDD2U tosses out any pretense that it is a slasher film. Aside from the presence of another killer – still clad in a creepy mask fashioned after the fictional Bayfield University’s mystifying mascot, the Baby – all the horror has been wrung out of the sequel. In lieu of chills, Landon serves up a giant, gooey homage to a very narrow mid-’80s wave of teen/college studio sci-fi comedies, including the aforementioned Back to the Future, My Science Project (1985), Real Genius (1985), and Weird Science (1985). (There’s a touch of Teen Wolf [1985] and Adventures in Babysitting [1987] in there, too.)

It’s certainly an unexpected turn for this nascent franchise, and a daring gear shift given the relatively light footprint of the preceding film. “Groundhog Day as a slasher film” was all the context one needed to appreciate what Landon and Co. were up to in the first outing. In comparison, Happy Death Day 2U feels like a fearless, sloppy, gloriously looney-toons swing for the fences, one that’s so committed to a specific retro stripe of harebrained campus farce that it often feels like a fever dream. Among the new characters introduced in this chapter is – honest to God – a buffoonish, sourpuss university dean. At one point, the heroes’ scheme depends on a character distracting said dean by pretending to be a sexy-yet-bumbling blind French foreign-exchange student. So … yeah: It’s broad as hell and utterly daft, but also sort of endearing if one can attune oneself to HDD2U’s odd quantum wavelength.

The obvious question is how the sequel undoes the seeming finality of the first film’s conclusion, in which Tree dispatched her would-be killer, reinvented herself as a less awful person, and got the proverbial guy in the form of the dorky-but-handsome decent dude Carter. HDD2U picks up literally the next day – Tuesday the 19th – after Carter’s dorm mate Ryan (Phi Vu) has once again spent the night in his car so that Tree can sleep over. He makes his way to the campus physics department, where he and his research partners, Samar (Suraj Sharm) and Dre (Sarah Yarkin), attempt to sort through some confounding data from their experimental “quantum reactor.” (The science in HDD2U is total gibberish, but in that breezy, non-bothersome way that echoes its 1980s forebears, as well as the mind-bending cartoon sci-fi of Rick & Morty – the film’s other major tonal touchstone.)

Abruptly, an irate Dean Bronson (Steve Zissis) appears with security in tow to confiscate the reactor, as the power-sucking device has been triggering repeated blackouts on campus. As if this crushing academic setback were not enough, Ryan is later ambushed in the deserted lab by a knife-wielding figure in a baby mask. As the blade plunges into his heart, Ryan jolts awake in his car: It is early Tuesday morning again, and he navigates the now-familiar events of the day with escalating bewilderment bordering on existential panic.

Fortunately, Tree is on hand to help Ryan navigate his temporal crisis. (Her ears perk up the moment he mentions his uncanny déjà vu, sending her into no-nonsense problem-solving mode.) She deftly summarizes the events of the first film in 30 seconds or so, then concludes that Ryan has become trapped in a similar loop. Together she and Carter – the only other person with whom she has discussed her Möbius-strip ordeal – accompany Ryan back to the physics lab in search of the waiting killer. Complications ensue, but to discuss anything of the plot beyond the 20-minute mark is to wade into major spoiler territory. Given that one of the crunchy pleasures of HDD2U is how it veers this way and that – the primary crisis switches three or four times over the course of the film – it’s best if viewers experience it for themselves.

However, the most conspicuous strength and weakness of HDD2U is apparent almost from the start. The sequel retroactively reveals a pseudo-scientific explanation for the events of the first film: Namely, Ryan and his partners’ quark-fiddling had the unintentional side effect of trapping a random nearby person (Tree) in a temporal loop. This conceit provides the entire justification for the sequel, which complicates the first film’s premise with familiar time-travel and parallel-universe snarls. Given how much kooky, often morbid fun Landon and his cast have with this elaboration, it’s hard to fault them for expanding the story in such a manner.

However, it’s also the case that HDD2U’s retconning unavoidably diminishes the self-contained quality of the first feature, not to mention undercutting its thrill- and character-centered approach. The commitment that Happy Death Day evinced in simply rolling with its Fortean weirdness focused the film gratifyingly, keeping the viewer’s attention on its Halloween-style theatrics and Rothe’s winning performance rather than nitpicky “Why?” and “How?” queries. Learning that It Was Mad Science All Along can’t help but feel like a bit of a letdown, particularly given that HDD2U’s loosey-goosey physics is more Back to the Future than Primer (2004). (Both hard-science geeks and clutter-hating cinephiles are bound to be unsatisfied on some level with the sequel’s approach.)

To its credit, Landon’s screenplay gets out in front of these inevitable criticisms. On learning that her ordeal was caused by a glitchy science project, Tree almost seems disillusioned, sulking that she had enjoyed thinking of her time loop as a gift from the cosmos, an opportunity to become a better person. Carter’s sensible riposte to this disenchantment – that Tree created positive meaning out of a meaningless quantum hiccup – points to the sequel’s low-key engagement with some surprisingly heady topics, such as the philosophy of personal identity. The introduction of temporal tangents and alternate realities into the series’ mythos allows Landon to replace the first film’s gauzy, Instagram-affirmation worldview with a tougher but more sure-footed “indifferent universe” materialism. This in turn permits HDD2U to deconstruct the notion of iterative improvement that undergirded the first film – and, indeed, almost every time-loop tale that has followed Richard A. Lupoff’s nihilistic 1973 short story “12:01 P.M.”

This is not to say that HDD2U is in any way a cerebral science-fiction film. Far from it: Landon’s sequel is almost gleefully dopey and cracked, mimicking the sensibilities of the broadest high-concept comedies of the 1980s. It’s the sort of exercise that is so taste-dependent that it almost defies criticism. Whether an individual viewer will enjoy, for example, the sight of Tree diving into an industrial chipper-shredder while dressed as Evel Knievel – for absolutely no reason beyond the dumb, grisly spectacle of it – is not really subject to critical persuasion. It is the Hawaiian pizza of sci-fi comedy. (Although the gusto with which Rothe leaps into every one-off physical gag is undeniably admirable.)

What salvages HDD2U from its own cornball lunacy – and the film does, in fact, veer into cringy, clumsy schtick in a few scenes – is the surprisingly light touch that Landon exhibits in realizing the film’s overall retro atmosphere. In an era when so many filmmakers think of “homage” as an opportunity to scatter clunky allusions to other, better films, Landon takes a more lithe approach, replicating the tricky tone and less showy aesthetic attributes of its mid-’80s sci-fi-comedy antecedents. (Again, only one feature is actually name-dropped – Back to the Future II this time around – and only to elbow Tree for her pre-2000 pop-cultural illiteracy.) This isn’t the reverent look-and-feel replication of the Grindhouse (2007) shorts, but something closer to a 1985 feature made with contemporary film grammar and technology. The film’s nods to Reagan-era cinematic history don’t always work as smoothly as Landon imagines. Case in point: The filmmaker turns the final 30 minutes into a lo-fi heist that would be better suited to a campus sex comedy, a decision that proves lethal to HDD2U’s already-uneven momentum. In the end, it’s the little things that tend to leave deepest impression, such as the way that Bear McCreary’s score evokes but does not imitate Alan Silvestri’s indelible compositions for Back to the Future – until a quotation of the older film’s twinkling “time travel” cue makes a delightful late-game appearance.

Once again holding the whole thing together is Rothe, whose presence in insipid studio romances (Forever My Girl, 2018) and calculatingly “heartwarming” indies (Please Stand By, 2018) feels increasingly like a waste of a fearless comedic star. Which isn’t to say that the actress neglects the more heartfelt aspects of HDD2U. To the extent that the film has any ambitions beyond being a cheese-slathered junk-food feast, its effectiveness is attributable to Rothe’s ability to wring pathos out of daft situations – and to Landon’s unchecked confidence in her. In this respect, the film is arguably more successful than its predecessor. While Happy Death Day directed a good-natured finger-wag at late-Millennial/early-Gen Z selfishness, HDD2U is, remarkably enough, more reflective and melancholy. The film employs its outlandish sci-fi conceit to pivot from abstract ruminations to starker, more personal questions about identity and morality. And Rothe, to her endless credit, sells every tearful inch of the tough choices her character is obliged to make – when she’s not gamely tossing, flattening, shredding, poisoning, and electrocuting herself through a succession of slapstick deaths worthy of Wile E. Coyote.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'High Flying Bird'.
February 12, 2019
By Joshua Ray

He Got Game

2019 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Steven Soderbergh / Premiered online on Feb. 8, 2019

Steven Soderbergh has been in the game for 30 years. His auspicious debut feature, sex, lies, and videotape, was the talk of the 1989 Sundance festival, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival mere months later, and premiered on North American screens that fall to become one of the most praised and watched indies ever. Simply put, the film ushered in a new wave of American independent cinema. Then, two years later, Soderbergh released Kafka. An intellectual, obtuse, and overproduced amalgamation of Franz Kafka academia and worship, the film bombed – critically and financially – and is the epitome of the sophomore slump.

Soderbergh's subsequent career is a storied one, full of hits and misses in and outside of the Hollywood studio system, but – “retirement” period from 2014-17 notwithstanding – the filmmaker remains one of the most adventurous and prolific directors working today. Auterists have a difficult time pigeonholeing him. For one, his aesthetic approach varies, dictated more by each film’s narrative and the director’s current technological interests rather than an overarching Soderbergh-ian style. If anything, he can be regarded as a genre dabbler in the Hawksian mode, although that old Hollywood master’s films are instantly recognizable as Hawks’ works, both stylistically and thematically.

Acknowledging that this kind of reductive classification may not even be necessary, there is one consistency across the entirety of Soderbergh's oeuvre: He is the ultimate purveyor of contemporary social and cinematic issues working through genre frameworks. This is especially true of his recent theatrical features: post-recession showbiz “musical” (Magic Mike, 2012); big-pharma mystery-cum-modern identity crisis (Side Effects, 2013); silent-majority heist romp (Logan Lucky, 2017); and #MeToo parable/health-care-system indictment (Unsane, 2018). The mix of social critique and genre revision in these films has been alternatively unsuccessful (Unsane), too sly for mainstream audiences (Logan, Side Effects), or roundly revered (Magic Mike).

High Flying Bird not only finds Soderbergh in this mode once again, but it is also one of his very best. The film is both a multi-layered salute to individual integrity within a rapacious industry and a crackling genre exercise with some of the director’s most controlled yet expressive filmmaking ever.

The ostensible genre here is the sports movie, but as in the baseball hit Moneyball (2011) – a film Soderbergh developed before Bennett Miller took the reins – the narrative privileges the business of the game over the game itself (basketball in this case). Ray Burke (André Holland, in another next-level performance after Moonlight [2016]) is a longtime sports agent known for bending the rules to his clients’ benefit. One of those clients, Erick Scott (Melvin Gregg), is a No. 1 draft pick freshly signed to the New York Knicks but prevented from playing due to protracted labor negotiations between the NBA team owners and players. This lockout stops the cash flow to players and therefore their agents. The main goal of the protagonists in Bird is therefore relatively simple: stop the lockout and get the players back on the court.

Of course, doing so is not so straightforward, and in the incredibly complex details of achieving that goal, the film smartly uses the elements of another genre, the film noir, to position Ray as Jerry Maguire by way of Sam Spade, a cunning and charming manipulator always three steps ahead of his opponents. He even has a gal Friday named Sam (the enviably cool Zazie Beetz of television’s Atlanta), his recent ex-assistant, a woman who is herself a capable detective. The rest of the noir archetypes are also present. Erick is the ingénue, while Jamero Umber (Justin Hurtt-Dunkley), another top draft pick, is Erick’s antagonist and the mark. Jamero’s mother and manager, Emera (Jeryl Prescott), is Ray’s rival sleuth gunning for the No. 1 spot. Spence (Bill Duke), a retired neighborhood coach, is a wise, curmudgeonly ally to Ray. David Seton (Kyle MacLachlan), the New York Knicks owner, is the seedy mastermind who attempts to block Ray at every move. In the middle of it all is Players Association representative Myra (Sonja Sohn), an old friend of Ray’s whose official position often complicates his plans, like a good cop to his gumshoe.

If Bird is a basketball drama laid over The Maltese Falcon (1941), then this film’s MacGuffin is something even more intangible than the former’s gilded “stuff that dreams are made of.” The largely white owners use the largely black players’ love for the game to curtail their autonomy, employing restrictive regulations to oppress them while increasingly benefiting financially from their labor. The struggle for earned and deserved autonomy, respectability, and acknowledgement is the conflict at the heart of the lockout, the ultimate goal for Ray and his allies as the agent makes moves to change “the game on top of the game” through both expertly plotted strategy and a few Hail Mary passes.

Screenwriter Tarell Alvin McCraney – who won an Oscar for co-writing Moonlight with that film’s director, Barry Jenkins – deftly complicates the industry-interruption narrative with both personal trauma and collective black trauma, never reaching for preachy didacticism and always displaying sparkling wit. Buried in the background of Ray’s motivation is his complex pain in suppressing his former client and cousin’s sexuality before that man’s premature death (implied to have been suicide). Even more complex is each character’s relationship to Christianity and its tenets of forgiveness and understanding. In Bird, the religion acts as built-in cultural trait – not a central narrative conceit as in so much trite “faith-based” fare. Some characters use religion as a justification for exploitation, while others employ it as a guiding light. McCraney eschews more hackneyed metaphors, going so far as to lambaste them through Spence. The old-timer recoils indignantly at NBA-as-slavery analogies, requiring in every instance that the speaker recite a biblically flavored mantra as penance.

Soderbergh, clearly re-energized by McCraney’s text, matches its dexterity by further developing his recent preferred production workflow of shooting on an iPhone, which he first used for Unsane. Whereas that madhouse horror used the fuzziness of the device’s images to suggest a confused state of reality, Bird looks remarkably polished, as crisp and clean as any other of Soderbergh’s digitally shot work. With a wide-angle lens affixed to the camera, the small and portable setup allows for at least two important visual touches. First, Soderbergh is able to frame his figures as though they are enveloped by the surrounding, stiflingly modern architectures, neatly mirroring the characters’ anxieties. Second, the director is able to easily exaggerate distance and movement. The result is a new, digital expressionism, an apt aesthetic for the noir proceedings that attempts to mimic the visual brawn of Orson Welles’ own excursions in the genre, The Lady from Shanghai (1948) and Touch of Evil (1958).

Those touchtones are simply inspiration, however, as High Flying Bird is not necessarily a groundbreaking masterwork. It doesn’t need to be. Compared to any of Welles’ and most of Soderbergh's own features, Bird is modestly scaled, and its director seems keenly aware of this. Soderbergh worked under the constraints of a $2 million budget, premiered the feature at the Slamdance film festival – Sundance’s “little sister” festival, of which he is highly supportive –  and is now releasing it without much fanfare on Netflix, sans any theatrical distribution. It’s a particularly interesting move for a film about an industry disruptor, directed by a filmmaker who could be called exactly that, and it’s entirely possible Soderbergh’s identification with the lead character is why the film resonates so potently. Steven Soderbergh is at the top of his game right now, and High Flying Bird is a slam dunk.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray