A still from 'A Star Is Born'.
October 4, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Song Remains the Same

2018 / USA / 135 min. / Dir. by Bradley Cooper / Opens in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

Not long into A Star is Born, it's become apparent that Bradley Cooper will be a real contender as a filmmaker. His visual influences are evident: Martin Scorsese’s gliding and orchestral tracking shots; Terrence Malick’s unencumbered camera with its awe-inspiring focus on people in their natural habitats; and the stoic classicism of Cooper's American Sniper (2014) director, Clint Eastwood, also an actor-turned-filmmaker. While such divergent aesthetic modes may seem at odds with one other, Cooper – who also stars and co-wrote A Star Is Born with Eric Roth – fuses their syntaxes into his own distinctive schema, revealing the director’s real interest: melodrama and its built-in ideas about identity and human behavior in extremis.

The traditionally feminine-associated melodrama informs all four previous versions of A Star is Born, but here it rubs shoulders with the more masculine drive of the aforementioned cinematic influences. In fact, Cooper’s version recalls a less precious and more relaxed version of Terrence Malick’s elegiac rock-and-roll feature Song to Song (2017) by way of the aesthetically lush and sociological astute “women’s pictures” of Douglas Sirk (e.g., Imitation of Life [1959]). This isn’t an inherently unworthy way of working through a story absorbed with the way people perform gender-associated qualities, but, by the film’s end, the director largely squanders the opportunity to express a fresh vision of a familiar story.

A shot early in the film encapsulates the thematic potential. Country singer/songwriter Jackson Maine (Cooper) drunkenly stumbles into a gay bar on drag night. While he’s not entirely condescending to the patrons and performers of the bar – he's just looking for nightcap, after all – he’s still a good-ol’-boy mega-star in an outwardly queer communal space. After the electrifying Edith Piaf-impersonating performance of Ally (Lady Gaga), he easily ingratiates himself backstage in order to meet her, and eventually charms his way into a drink with her. While she readies herself, he does an impromptu unplugged performance for the queens (RuPaul’s Drag Race alumni Willam Belli and D.J. 'Shangela' Pierce) in the now-closed bar. Maine stands left of frame, performing in the brightly-lit disco-themed bar to the offscreen queens, one of whom is reflected – seemingly staring directly at the viewer – in a mirror in the shot's background.

It’s the kind of gorgeously glittery and ironic tableaux that Sirk and his acolyte Rainer Werner Fassbinder so often constructed in their films. The cisgender man sings “Maybe It’s Time” – a song ostensibly about the cultural shift away from traditional norms – to a queer audience that the frame elides, while the compartmentalized reflection of the subversion of those norms stares directly at the film’s audience. A blink-and-you’ll-miss-it act of confrontation, the shot’s irony ripples outward through the first half of Cooper’s Star, two acts of cinematic magnetism carried by the filmmaker’s ability to stir the audience’s emotions, while implicating them as a part of the system he criticizes. 

By using melodrama’s innate exploration of the ways in which people craft their identities, Cooper further elucidates the already-present themes about relational and public personas. Maine’s drug and alcohol addiction seems to stem from the gulf between his public self and the self he’s created from the disparate parts of his powerful, masculine older brother, Bobby (Sam Elliot), and their deceased father. Even Bobby recognizes this when he chastises Maine for adopting his trademark voice. Cooper – in a monumental but quiet turn that resembles the repressed anguish of Heath Ledger in Brokeback Mountain (2005) – has done exactly the same kind of vocal duplication in mimicking Elliot, adding a metatextual layer about the crafting of performance.

Ally’s physical appearance is the hindrance between the obviously talented singer/songwriter and true success. Maine imbues her with the confidence necessary for her destined breakout, to the point of almost fetishizing her nose, the feature she internalizes as her most conspicuous weakness. When Maine forces Ally onstage to sing the Oscar-bound “Shallow,” the director slyly nods to Maine’s own objectification of Ally, showing the male half of the duo staring up in awe at his partner’s face on the large screen behind them, rather than looking at her directly from just feet away. Maine later criticizes the Hollywood machine-crafted pop seductress persona Ally adopts, in a move that highlights his own idealized down-home version of her. 

In casting Lady Gaga as Maine’s female counterpoint, the director imports even more metatextual information. Ally’s father – Andrew Dice Clay in another supporting role as an aspirational blue-collar man, similar to his great turn in Blue Jasmine (2013) – discusses public image-making in the same manner as the industry people in the film's more obvious Hollywood-demonizing second half. The tastemakers want Ally to be platinum blonde – a Gaga trademark – but she opts for a neon orange hue instead. These scenes carry the weight of Gaga’s own self-heralded rise to fame, her transcendence of harmful beauty standards to become the “Mother Monster,” and her audience’s obsession with their own ideals of her. Onscreen, the luminous Gaga is acting light years beyond her leaden Golden Globe-winning turn in American Horror Story: Hotel (2015-16), but her eyes – and the film’s careful editing – still betray the novice actor’s seemingly paralyzing fear of the camera.

In adhering to a now 81-year-old narrative, Cooper’s film pivots towards more outwardly plotty material halfway through its running time. It thereby loses its near-mystical sheen, taking on the more traditional, plasticky tone of the Barbra Streisand-starring 1976 iteration, starkly opposed to the mournful fogginess of George Cukor’s 1954 version featuring Judy Garland. To this end, a Grammy Awards ceremony gone awry is embarrassingly mis-staged and a wasted opportunity to further the ideas of public performance from earlier in the film. Furthermore, the feature’s denigration of the pop genre is grossly old-fashioned, undermining its Gaga-borrowed musical ethos. 

Finally, as a portrait of codependency, this Star further falters due to the framing of Ally’s success as occurring concurrently with Maine’s downfall. Given that the film shifts largely to his point-of-view, it also asks the audience to sympathize with a man whose failures are dangerously equated with a woman’s success. Although this conceit is built into the fabric of the material, it’s nevertheless a problematic move that repurposes the entire film as an ode to “traditional,” heteronormative values. Its audience-rallying, tear-jerking finale therefore falls flat, made all the more disappointing by the film’s previous goodwill in mounting subversive acts that it ultimately ends up wasting. 

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Venom'.
October 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Down Came the Rain and Washed the Spider Out

2018 / USA / 112 min. / Dir. by Ruben Fleischer / Opens in wide release on Oct. 5, 2018

Undoubtedly, Sony Pictures’ decision to produce a new film centered on Spider-Man’s icky alien nemesis Venom – sans the Web-Slinger – seemed like a clever idea at the time to the studio’s financially-minded executives. Although Sony essentially leased Peter Parker’s alter ego to Disney, where he’s presently employed for a crowd-pleasing (and heartbreaking) stint in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), the myriad Spidey-adjacent characters under the umbrella of Sony’s film rights remain ripe for exploitation. Of all the baddies in Spidey’s famously colorful rogue’s gallery, however, Venom is among the most conceptually baffling choices for a standalone film. An amorphous extraterrestrial “symbiote” of malevolent intelligence, Venom’s first host was Spider-Man himself. Like most supervillains conceived as dark reflections of their do-gooder counterparts, Venom doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense in the absence of Spidey – first and foremost because his visual design is explicitly based on the Web-Slinger’s distinctive costume. To make a Venom film without Spider-Man is akin to making a Bizarro film without Superman.

One likes to think there’s no high concept so ill-considered that it can’t be salvaged by solid filmmaking. Sadly, Venom doesn’t possess much of the latter, although the feature’s problems have less to do with director Ruben Fleischer’s journeyman efforts than with the sloppy writing, schizophrenic tone, and palpable confusion about Venom’s characterization. Some of the blame plainly rests with that dreaded hobgoblin of all blockbuster filmmaking-by-committee: studio meddling. In a presumed effort to attain the coveted PG-13 rating – and thereby maximize its opening weekend box office take – Venom has been discernibly bowdlerized from the more vicious, ghastly, and bonkers film it plainly could have been. This strategy is doubly nonsensical, given that Fox’s Deadpool films have already established the profitability of the crude, R-rated superhero flick, and the fact that Venom fans who were enamored with the character in his late-80s / early-90s comic heyday are now approaching (or well into) their 40s.

What the viewer is left with, then, is a film that’s been lethally disarrayed for reasons that are wholly illogical. This lends the entire endeavor a bitter aftertaste that frequently overwhelms the sensibility of mad spectacle that Fleischer and his performers strive to tease from the material. That, ultimately, is what’s so disappointing about Venom: Squint hard enough and one can discern the film that might have been, a darkly funny riff on superhero tentpoles, steeped in the visual vocabulary of mad science and body horror. That feature might not have been good, but it would be a damn sight more coherent and fascinating than the dreary Mad Libs blockbuster that’s resulted from Sony’s fiddling.

When a private spacecraft owned by the bioengineering and pharmaceutical corporation Life Foundation crashes in Malaysia, CEO Carlton Drake (Riz Amed) is more concerned with the integrity of the cargo than the survival of the crew. The ship, it turns out, was carrying four blobs of animate goo sealed inside containers, three of which remain intact and are quickly secreted back to Life Foundation’s San Francisco laboratory. These blobs – allegedly harvested from a passing comet – are Symbiotes, parasitic extraterrestrial organisms that need to bond with other life forms to survive in Earth’s atmosphere. A slick futurist whose neo-liberal concern for global ecological ills conceals a messianic sociopathy, Drake is convinced (for some reason) that these alien slimes are key to the practical colonization of space, and therefore to the long-term survival of the human species.

Neither Drake or anyone else at Life Foundation seems all that concerned with the missing fourth Symbiote, or, for that matter, with the sole surviving astronaut that is pointedly pulled from the wreckage of the company’s spaceship. This is just one of the early, dispiriting signs that the film’s gaggle of screenwriters can’t be bothered with a little thing like story logic. Wondering why a Big Pharma corporation is sending rockets into space in the first place? Or how Drake knows his critters are parasitic organisms before scientists like Dr. Dora Skirth (Jenny Slate) conduct even one experiment on them? Sorry, but no explanations are forthcoming on these points – or many, many others. Shortly after the crash, the xenomorph sludge that is hiding inside the surviving astronaut proceeds to body-jump through a succession of victims, slowly working its way to the United States based on little more than the Life Foundation logo.

This is all presented with the dull breathlessness of a sci-fi film that is plainly interested in hasty table-setting rather than plausibility or lucidity. It’s obvious that Venom wants to plow through its setup as quickly as possible to get to the Good Stuff (i.e., a monster made of black goo biting people’s heads off). What’s inexplicable, then, is why it spends so much time wallowing in the pre-monster life of its hard-luck protagonist, Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), an investigative journalist with a laughably implausible gig covering Bay Area politics, business, and corruption for a national news network. Hardy, who can be a spellbinding performer, is horribly miscast here as a self-righteous, rule-bending muckraker. He rather bafflingly buries the hardboiled, “anything-for-a-story” characterization that seems to be the film’s intention for Eddie underneath a slathering of clammy slouching, wise-guy mumbling, and eccentric outbursts.

By all appearances, the viewer is supposed to identify and sympathize with Eddie. He wears hoodies and drinks Pabst Blue Ribbon, after all, and he’s chummy with a neighborhood homeless woman and the Chinese-American owner of the bodega around the corner, movie-reality signifiers that he’s One of the Good White Guys. However, the only “reporting” that Eddie does on-screen is profoundly stupid and unethical. His attorney fiancé, Anne Weying (Michelle Williams) just happens to work for a firm that is representing Life Foundation in a series of lawsuits, and when Eddie’s editor saddles him with a puff piece on Drake, he steals a document from Anne’s laptop as ammunition for the interview. Predictably, Eddie learns nothing substantive from Drake when he ambushes him about the corporation’s questionable human drug trials, and he’s then summarily fired by his editor for insubordination and dumped by Anne for his betrayal.

Six months later, the jobless Eddie is scraping rock-bottom – a situation that, it bears repeating, is entirely his own fault – when a conflicted Dr. Skirth approaches him and offers to show him first-hand evidence of Drake’s unethical experiments. She then sneaks him into the Life Foundation lab, where Eddie eventually witnesses imprisoned human subjects who have been exposed to the Symbiotes. One of the blobs abruptly escapes and possesses Eddie, and we’re finally (finally) off the races. The tarry slime inside Eddie’s body aids his flight from the Life Foundation security goons by bestowing him with superhuman strength, agility, and resilience, and by lashing out with its gooey tendrils at anything it perceives as threatening.

Now on the run from Drake’s thugs, Eddie suspects that he’s been infected by some sort of genetically engineered contagion, but the truly dire weirdness of his situation doesn’t become apparent until a guttural, monstrous voice in his head begins growling “FOOD” and “HUNGRY”. Soon Eddie is having entire conversations with his sinister parasite, which calls itself Venom, although these exchanges mostly consist of the Symbiote bullying him to consume more calories, mocking his sad-sack life, and musing impishly about whether to annihilate Earth or savor its amusements. Unluckily for both Eddie and Venom, there’s the little matter of the fourth Symbiote, a more powerful entity named Riot with much clearer ambitions of interplanetary conquest. (That said, Venom is overall a refreshingly small-bore superhero film, with nary an apocalyptic crisis in sight.)

So: Venom is a Jekyll-and-Hyde scenario of sorts, although it also borrows a bit from Darkman (1990) and Willem Dafoe’s spin on the Green Goblin in Spider-Man (2002), both directed by Sam Raimi. Not incidentally, Venom is at its most unselfconsciously entertaining when it aims for a Raimi-like sense of sweaty absurdity and gross-out nuttiness. The CGI is hardly cutting-edge, but there’s a cartoonishly magical quality to the way that Venom’s ropy black pseudopods emerge from Eddie’s body to mangle opponents, flip over cars, and scale sheer buildings. It’s not convincing, exactly, but it’s comic-book astonishing in the manner of now-dated but innovative digital effects such as Terminator 2’s (1991) liquid metal horrors. Fleischer fumbles the execution of the action sequences as often as he succeeds – there’s a centerpiece chase involving a motorcycle-riding Eddie/Venom and a swarm of flying drones that’s curiously lifeless – but, as with the Jurassic Park franchise's dinosaurs, there’s something giddily awesome about the film’s hulking, grinning goo-demons, such that the sight of them never grows tiresome.

Unfortunately, both the director and Hardy lack a firm sense for the film’s overall tone and for Venom’s motivation, which leads to clunky gear-changes between comedy, thrills, horror, and pathos. For an alien parasite without a central nervous system, Venom has a persona that’s (surprise!) suspiciously akin to a foul-mouthed, nihilistic villain from a 1990s comic book. (The tell: He chides Eddie as a “loser” and a “pussy”.) There’s some insinuation that Venom’s personality is derived from Eddie’s id as a side effect of their merger, but the film never develops or explores this notion, instead returning repeatedly to a clumsy buddy-comedy dynamic between man and flesh-eating parasite. Venom’s scene-to-scene mood swings between ravenous monster, juvenile wisecracker, gaslighting abuser, and soft-hearted accidental hero are jarring in the extreme, and a sure sign that the filmmakers had no idea what do with an iconic Spider-Man villain when Spider-Man is nowhere in sight.

Hardy’s performance is unabashedly twitchy and bug-eyed, which might have worked well in a feature that was similarly cranked up to 11, but here it just clashes with Venom’s humdrum familiarity: the earnest stupidity of the sci-fi gobbledygook; the tiresome, under-nourished anti-heroic arc; and the uninvolving relationship melodrama. Williams looks lost early on, mired in a stock ex-girlfriend role, but she sharpens over the course of the film, ultimately turning Anne into a strong, witty character. She alone has the insight and courage to unequivocally call Eddie out for his shitty, self-owning actions. Every other actor is shamefully wasted in substance-free roles, especially Amed and Slate, normally welcome additions to any cast. (To say nothing of Woody Harrelson, who appears in a mid-credits cameo that comprises one of the most idiotic and ungainly sequel teasers in memory.)

While Venom is not without its Bad Movie charms, the film as a whole just comes off as insultingly stupid and slipshod, an amateurish knock-off of the smoothly engineered assembly-line superhero product pumped out by Disney and Marvel Studios. (A knock-off that somehow cost $100 million to produce.) Whatever their individual flaws, the consistently good-not-great MCU features succeed admirably as works of pop entertainment and serialized storytelling. Also-rans like Venom throw into sharp relief that flinging mismatched genre ingredients haphazardly at the screen and hoping that something sticks is not a reliable recipe for good-not-great.

Rating: D+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mandy'.
September 28, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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


2018 / USA / 83 min. / Dir. by Austin Vesely / Premiered online on Sept. 11, 2018

Slice is definitive proof that indie distributor A24 is not the bastion of peerless, auteur-centric curation that its fans (including this writer) imagined them to be. The feature film debut of music video director Austin Vesely, this misbegotten horror-comedy is a chintzy, all-over-the-road mess of supernatural and slasher flick tropes, served up with piping hot unfunniness. The problems are obvious from the outset, as Vesely’s screenplay attempts to cram an entire TV season’s worth of nonsensical occult world-building into the opening 10 minutes. The plot, initially focused on the murder of pizza delivery drivers in a haunted town, is just an excuse for Vesely to stage indifferent, hackneyed scenes where stereotypical characters exclaim 10th-grade-level “humorous” dialog at each other. The only positive blip to emerge from this train wreck is Chance the Rapper’s over-hyped appearance as a “Chinese food werewolf”. The hip hop artist’s acting isn’t “good,” exactly, but his suave nonchalance – which clashes horribly with the rest of the film – is almost endearing. Rating: D-  [Now available to rent or purchase from Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]


2018 / Belgium, USA / 121 min. / Dir. by Panos Cosmatos / Premiered online on Sept. 14, 2018

The sophomore feature from Italian-Canadian filmmaker Panos Cosmatos, Mandy feels like a frenzied escalation over his narcotic Cronenberg riff Beyond the Black Rainbow (2010). Just as baffling as the director's first film but suffused with an ineffable air of doom and madness, Mandy is a straightforward revenge tale at bottom, rendered with all the subtlety of a Heavy Metal magazine cover. The first hour proceeds dreamily yet ominously, as lumberjack Red (Nicolas Cage) and artist Mandy (Andrea Riseborough) enjoy an offbeat marital bliss in their forest hideaway. Unfortunately, a local doomsday cult leader (Linus Roache) has set his eye on Mandy, and when the dust and ashes clear, the left-for-dead Red sets out to spill blood and cleave heads. Like the PCP-addled love child of a prog rock concept album and a doom metal music video, Mandy eschews rationality for the Rule of Cool, but Cosmatos presents every splatter of batshit weirdness with such ecstatic panache, it’s hard not to be seduced. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Land of Steady Habits'.
September 28, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Stuck Between Stations

2018 / USA / 98 min. / Dir. by Nicole Holofcener / Premiered online on Sept. 14, 2018

The title The Land of Steady Habits may be misleading. It suggests portraiture of a menial but well-meaning life, and to some, it reads as pejorative against a perceived life not lived. For filmmaker Nicole Holfcener’s characters, the idea of this state of being actually represents an end-game to the emotional and familial upheaval they are undergoing. Achieving stasis — whether it be emotional, financial, relational, or even physical — is preferred to the purgatorial space they currently inhabit. 

The film’s title is, in fact, a term used for the Connecticut setting in which the characters reside. This northeastern United States milieu is familiar enough to anyone who’s read John Irving or seen films such as Todd Fields’ wonderful In the Bedroom (2001) or Lasse Hallstrom’s less successful E. Annie Proulx adaptation The Shipping News (also 2001). Works like these present sunny autumnal surfaces populated by middle class (usually white) people whose simmering resentments eventually erupt as the season changes into an icy winter. 

Land doesn’t stray far from this common representation, taking place almost entirely during a wintry holiday season in which its central character, “retired” financial trader Anders Harris (Ben Mendelsohn), attempts to navigate his newfound singlehood. Much has been made about Land being Holfcener’s first foray into a male-centric story. While her adaptation — also a first for the writer-director — of Ted Thompson’s novel of the same name doesn’t preclude critiques of masculinity, Anders is a character who fits in snugly with the female self-destruction that is front and center in the director’s previous works such as Walking and Talking (1996), Please Give (2010), and Enough Said (2013). 

Anders’ floundering and posturing are best characterized by an early scene with his therapist, Howard (Victor Williams). The patient reluctantly reveals he smoked PCP-laced pot at a friend’s party with a group of teenagers, one of whom, Charlie (Charlie Tahan), survives an overdose shortly thereafter. After Howard confirms his own presence at said party, he confronts Anders about his actions. Anders sees this as an interpersonal setup, chastising Howard with “Way to bury the lede,” before justifying his actions and rejecting any blame for them. He then storms off, stealing a stack of his counselor’s coffee table books. 

This range of reactionary forcefulness allows Mendelsohn — a supreme performer in danger of being typecast as the insidious villain he’s played so well in films as disparate as Killing Them Softly (2012) and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) — to perform in shades of grey. His Anders is both a victim and perpetrator of a patriarchal machine keen on masculine authority alongside financial dominance, a system at the fore of Holofcener’s criminally underrated Friends with Money (2006). Anders has been chewed up and spit out by that system, but his self-deprecating charm and wit have kept him afloat when he’s been all but ostracized by the society that surrounds him. 

Those impossible standards create other victims, too, as Land becomes an ensemble piece about personal actions and their consequences within a community. The strength and temperament of Helene (Edie Falco), Anders’ ex-wife, are consistently tested by the men in her life: Anders himself; their 27-year-old slacker son, Preston (Thomas Mann); and her live-in fiancé, Donny (Bill Camp), who happens to be a former colleague of her ex-husband. There’s an analogous family, the Ashfords, in the Harris’ social circle. Never without glasses of red wine in their Home and Garden-ready estate, Sophie (Elizabeth Marvel) and Mitchell (Michael Gaston) are also contending with a burnout son, the perpetually high Charlie. 

The film undergoes a jarring shift in the third act, when when a character makes a ghoulish discovery. Scenes of confrontation and revelation, scored to maudlin orchestral cues, undermine Land’s already precarious serio-comic tone, and the acute behavioral nuances of the characterizations dissipate. With this descent into overwrought American Beauty (1999) territory, the film begins to manifest its own existential crisis as if to mimic its characters’, but in ways that become increasingly obvious and devoid of the care with which Holofcener is commonly — and rightfully — associated. 

She is a director whose critical esteem has risen with each subsequent film. Holofcener also has many for-hire television directing credits to her name — as many women directors in Hollywood do for the sake of survival — between her all-too-infrequent, modestly-scaled big screen work. To its detriment, Land feels like the first feature she’s made in a more staid televisual style. Never one for cinematic pyrotechnics, she nevertheless crafts films that have always been involving and imbued with a lived-in sensibility. However, save for some choice camera movements (such as in its opening shot), the filmmaker's latest feature arrives feeling hastily directed and sloppily edited. 

Still, Holofcener’s talent for assembling a grade-A cast is on full display here. Falco buttresses her character’s strong will with her innate performer’s power. Marvel plays the polar opposite of of the nebbish sister in Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected) (2017), but with the same sensitivity she showcased there. Connie Britton gives Barbara, the single empty-nester who may be the only shining light for the depressed and impotent Anders, equal parts resolve and resiliency. Even with its milquetoast aesthetic and tonal inconsistencies, these players in their prime make The Land of Steady Habits a worthy place to visit. 

Rating: C+

[Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Blaze'.
September 27, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Tyger, Tyger, Burning Bright

2018 / USA / 129 min. / Dir. by Ethan Hawke / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018; locally on Sept. 28, 2018

The whiskey-soaked Outlaw Country biopic Blaze is Ethan Hawke’s fourth feature film as a director, and the second that entails a deep dive into the life and times of a professional musician. Seymour: An Introduction, Hawke’s 2014 documentary about classical pianist Seymour Bernstein, is less a traditional non-fictional portrait than a joyous and intensely earnest artistic statement. As a filmmaker, Hawke was able to efficaciously translate Bernstein’s hard-won, commendable worldview – about creation, performance, instruction, integrity, and life itself – into glowing cinematic form.

At first glance, Blaze appears to be the director’s foray into what is frequently a tired narrative subgenre: the True Story™ of an under-appreciated artist’s incandescent emergence, followed by their all-too-soon passing due to substance abuse and other self-immolating behavior. Often, the message in such films is essentially one of bittersweet tongue-clucking, a glib lament that such raw talent was so wastefully snuffed out in such a trite manner. Hawke is both too ardent and too astute for such facileness, however. Blaze is a conflicted film, as uncertain about its thesis as Seymour was clarion. This, oddly enough, works to the film’s immense benefit, invigorating an otherwise musty set of biopic tropes.

In recounting the short, fraught life of country music singer-songwriter Blaze Foley (born Michael Fuller), Hawke asks the viewer to wrestle with the uglier aspects of creativity and mythmaking. If Blaze doesn’t provide much in the way of easy answers – or even a clear position on the matter of Foley’s artistic legacy – such ambiguity is mostly a feature rather than a bug. This is not the sort of biopic that is all that concerned with convincing the viewer of its subject’s creative genius and enduring importance. Blaze’s methods are more poetic than proclamatory, focused primarily on transforming the raw facts of Foley’s life into an elliptical and heartsick dive bar epic, its arias picked out on an acoustic guitar in the wee hours of the night. Between the lines of this lyrical portraiture, however, is a sticky attempt to grapple with the havoc wreaked on lives and relationships by the toxic trifecta of art, commerce, and personal demons.

Blaze Foley himself remains a bit of an enigma throughout Hawke’s film. Touchingly portrayed by newcomer Ben Dickey with an easy, enviable authenticity, Foley is a hungry, lumbering grizzly of a man, eager to etch his name among America’s country legends. Limping from a childhood bout with polio, he doesn’t project the usual slate of artistic insecurities, or the devouring narcissism often cultivated to compensate for such self-doubts. Foley is comfortable with his talent, and the respect he demands from colleagues and strangers alike is that owed to any performer, not just Great Artists.

Unfortunately, Foley also has numerous weaknesses – primarily alcohol, cocaine, and the unresolved angst of an abusive childhood – as well as a hot-headed, allegedly principled streak that leads to a stalled career and ultimately to his death. Partly owing to Dickey’s relaxed-yet-reserved performance, however, there is a distinct backwoods guardedness to Foley; he speaks bluntly, but only in a vocabulary of country-fried adages and self-pitying gripes. It’s in his melancholy songs and his rambling postcards to his wife Sybil Rosen (Alia Shawkat) that a more effusive and honestly confessional Foley emerges.

Combined with the film’s time-hopping structure, these factors give Blaze the feeling of an observer’s conflicted recollections of Foley, rather than a work of headspace portraiture centered on the man himself. Which is eminently fitting, given that the Hawke co-wrote the film with Rosen, adapting her 2008 memoir Living in the Woods in a Tree: Remembering Blaze Foley. (Rosen even has a cameo in the film, appearing as her own mother in an awkward meet-the-parents scene that’s ripe with affable redneck vs. middle-class Jew culture clash.) It’s easy to envision how Rosen might have erred here, turning the screenplay into either a sour, self-serving work or a swooning act of hagiography. With Hawke’s assist, however, she’s crafted a script that is diligently focused on her troubled lover while also consistently mindful of her perspective – with the occasional despairing head-shake at her own youthful stupidity. Blaze might be Foley’s story, but it is (mostly) Rosen’s version of the tale, filtered through Hawke’s palpable zeal at portraying the artistic life, warts and all.

The film’s structure is a darting and looping thing, but Hawke’s approach here is not digressive – the occasionally indulgent two-plus-hour running time notwithstanding. Nor, strictly speaking, is it loose and impressionistic in a manner that aims for a sensibility of jumbled reminiscence. There is a clear narrative, albeit one that’s been cut-and-pasted into a form that allows for evocative, time-tripping juxtaposition. Hawke nests roughly chronological scenes of Foley’s musical career and his romance with Sybil within not one but two framing sequences. The first concerns Foley’s last day on Earth, the centerpiece of which is a rancorous and poorly-attended afternoon appearance at a roadhouse, a performance that Foley records for a notional live album. (In the process, the tape captures not only Foley’s on-stage ramblings, but also the chatter and heckling of the indifferent bar patrons.)

Secondarily, Hawke layers in snippets of an interview given by Foley’s friends Townes (Charlie Sexton) and Zee (Josh Hamilton) to a guileless and mostly unseen radio DJ (Hawke), some indefinite time after Foley’s death. “Townes” would be fellow Outlaw Country legend Townes Van Zandt, a figure whose artistic import was similarly overlooked in his lifetime but has been posthumously recognized in a way that has generally eluded Foley. Although the interview is ostensibly about Van Zandt, he quickly diverts the discussion into a glowing testimonial about his departed friend, an endeavor that Zee regards with a kind of befuddlement that slowly evolves into angry annoyance.

This second framing device is the most conspicuous indication that what Blaze is up to is something thornier than the standard biopic ambition to give a neglected artist their due. As Townes waxes on in an authoritative “I Knew the Man” way about Foley’s hidden reserves of kindness and spirituality, Zee is visibly taken aback – and then begins to outright seethe – at the contradiction between this depiction and the drunken, belligerent reality that he recalls. Some of this may be sheer resentment: Zee is painted as the least successful of the trio, often more akin to an over-enthusiastic fan and enabler than a fellow artist. (In one memorably bitter flashback, Townes tells a wonderful anecdote-joke whose aim is entirely to humiliate Zee in front of Foley.) However, some of Zee’s irritation plainly stems from a rumbling of integrity, an understanding that the unglamorous truth matters more than the gauzy, obliquely self-serving myths that Townes is pushing.

Of course, the truth about Foley likely lies somewhere between the poles of the tender artistic soul and the self-destructive alcoholic, a middle-of-the-road cliché that nonetheless feels credible given what Sybil’s viewpoint reveals about the man. It’s easy to see why she fell in love with Foley, who is portrayed as a sweet and soulful partner whose unassuming, whiskery bulk conceals the deep reserves of emotion that she craves. (Pointedly, their first encounter occurs at an actor’s commune, where his set-building interrupts her rehearsal of a monologue about the all-consuming nature of a woman’s love.) It’s also understandable why she ultimately finds it impossible to love him and simultaneously maintain her self-respect and sanity. Once the couple moves from their Edenic starter shack in the Texas woodlands to the relative bustle of Austin so that Foley can pursue his music career, the cracks in his easy-going, sensitive hillbilly schtick begin to appear.

Gone for weeks and weeks at a time while Sybil waits tables to pay the rent, Foley succumbs to all the usual temptations – booze, drugs, and women – while also trying to maintain his artistic voice in a world that doesn’t have much patience or interest. Unfortunately, this latter impulse largely manifests as a propensity to drunkenly provoke music producers, venue owners, and random audience members. (As Inside Llewyn Davis demonstrated, there are few things more intolerable than a starving musician who equates self-inflicted failure with integrity.) Sybil is willing to make sacrifices for her husband, to a point, but Hawke and Shawkat portray her as more actualized and self-aware than the stock wife character in similar artist biopics. Shawkat, who is quite good here, uses her usual cool, mumblecore-ish style as an affecting counterpoint to the film’s melodramatic beats; in those rare moments when her countenance splits into a slow, shuddering sob, the authenticity is all the sharper.

When Sybil finally throws up her hands and leaves Foley, it’s a clean break, made without much regret and for reasons that are entirely understandable. For Foley, however, the loss of the woman who was the Love of His Life haunts him for the rest of his days, dragging him even deeper into the abyss. Blaze, then, is a film about the Hemingway Myth, the notion that great art (usually produced by a man) requires great suffering, and that that suffering is best elicited through vice. Townes himself is shown explicitly peddling this poisonous idea when Foley’s record label bosses – a trio of Texas oil wildcatters turned dilettante music producers, played by Steve Zahn, Sam Rockwell, and director Richard Linklater – furiously lay into the drunk musicians after yet another fiasco performance. “We’ve got everything under control,” Townes slurs, gesturing around at the empty bottles and snoring, streaked-mascara groupies. “This is what we do. This is research for us.” While Hawke’s film never denies that great art can be made by addicts, it sharply critiques the notion that such behavior is essential to great art, or even particularly conducive to it. (Van Zandt himself was a notoriously ravenous alcoholic and heroin addict who likely suffered from bi-polar disorder, and much like Foley he died relatively young, at the age 52.)

Certainly, there’s an undeniable familiarity to the narrative beats in Blaze – right down to the doom-laden scene depicting Foley’s faintly absurd death at age 39, at the hands of a friend’s thieving son. Hawke never manages to completely banish that whiff of staleness from his feature. Yet the film’s insistence on complicating the biopic form with skeptical, grounded observations about art marks it as bolder and more distinctive than other works in the subgenre. Frustratingly, Blaze never articulates a conclusive stance on its subject, and that reticence leaves the film feeling somewhat hollow, lacking as it does much insight about a purportedly overlooked artist. (One essentially leaves the theater with the takeaway, “Boy, Blaze Foley sure drank a lot, died young, and wrote songs that some people think are great.”) In its favor, however, Hawke’s film isn’t aiming to inform or argue – Kevin Triplett’s 2011 documentary Blaze Foley: Duct Tape Messiah functions well enough on that score – but to deliver a lyrical, wholly cinematic meditation on creativity, with Foley as its tragic case study.

Essential to the film’s novelty is the nonlinear structure that Hawke employs, which he elaborates on with all sorts of fascinating stylistic gestures. Often, his camera will wander among the anonymous bar patrons as Foley mutters thickly over the microphone, observing them passively but not without empathy in their routines: staring at the television, popping bar peanuts, kissing in hallways, making phone calls, smoking in the alley, snorting a key of cocaine and primping in the restroom. At times, Hawke’s mise-en-scène jumbles the timeline almost magically. Early in their relationship, Sybil goes to clinic in a shabby strip mall to end an unwanted pregnancy – and yet across the street is the dive bar where Foley is currently muddling through his final performance. Hawke and cinematographer Steve Cosens give tge film a yellowish, muddy look, half faded Polaroid photograph and half cigarette smoke stain. (A fitting aesthetic, given the feature’s embrace of both wistfulness and grime.)

Blaze doesn’t have much of substance to say about it its titular musician, but it’s a poetic and touching exemplar of the biopic form, unafraid to use its subject to ruminate provocatively on the trials of being (and living with) an artist. In its low-key way, if feels like Hawke’s most accomplished directorial effort to date, a poetic work full of sneaky intelligence and acidic pessimism about the creative life.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'We the Animals'.
September 26, 2018
By Cait Lore

Parting from the Pack

2018 / USA / 94 min. / Dir. by Jeremiah Zagar / Opened in select cities on Aug. 17, 2018; locally on Sept. 14, 2018

In queer film studies, one must accept that the definition of the central concept of interest — “queerness” — is perpetually in flux. It simply gestures toward meaning and is not confined to the same empirical categories that are associated with “gay” and “lesbian,” as Eve Kofsky Sedgwick has claimed. Instead, it is a word of radical openness, actively defying objectivity, while directly addressing the disenfranchised — sexual or otherwise — whose marginalized identities are realized, or even liberated, through ineffable expression.

As a visual medium, cinema possesses the ability to translate queer experience into something palpable. Consider, for instance, the early films of Terence Davies, which directly address the queer experience through mise-en-scène, often eschewing expository dialogue. Director Jeremiah Zagar seems to follow along with this spirit of queerness in his newest feature, We the Animals. Tapping into both documentary and coming-of-age modes, this is a film about memory and re-creation, gesturing towards some fluid state between them. 

Of a piece with films like Hirokazu Kore-eda’s Nobody Knows (2004), Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011), and Davies’ own The Long Day Closes (1992), We the Animals takes place at a transitional moment in a young boy’s life. The boy, Jonah (Evan Rosadon), is about to turn 10. He has two brothers, Manny (Isaiah Kristian) and Joel (Josiah Gabriel), slightly older, but still in the throes of youth. Together they live in Upstate New York, in a small working-class home with Ma (Sheila Vand) and Paps (Raúl Castillo). The parents do their best to make ends meet, but this often results in them being unavailable to their children. That seems to be fine with young Jonah, though; he has his brothers, after all. The three share a bond that is almost tribal, complete with all the rituals and private languages that term implies. 

In Jonah’s voiceover narration, he speaks of “we,” referring to himself and his brothers as if they are one entity. That titular pronoun is somewhat misleading, though, as this is ultimately Jonah’s story. A passive protagonist, Jonah’s gaze wanders from father to mother to his brothers, but the film itself never strays far from Jonah’s point of view. When Jonah turns 10, his perception of the world expands, and the film adapts accordingly. Paps is not only charismatic and tender; he’s also volatile and aggressive. Ma takes to her bed for days, maybe even months — the timeline is intentionally muddled here. Jonah can no longer connect with his brothers as easily as he used to. As they grow more like his Paps, taking on conventionally masculine attributes, Jonah begins to turn inward and away from his family, differentiating himself from the tribe. 

We the Animals is an elliptical film that often shies away from classical narrative techniques, favoring impressionistic storytelling and voiceover narration. Admittedly, there are moments in the film where the narration undermines the power of the film’s images. Occasionally, these monologues are too on-the-nose, but such incidences are few and far between. The film more than makes up for these moments with its wild use of form. For example, when Jonah starts to turn away from his family, he becomes even more focused on his drawings. Trying to understanding himself through art, he scribbles with anxious fury, reveling in a melancholic ecstasy of sorts. In these moments, the film breaks into animated sequences, composed of Jonah’s own art, where he tries to reflect the world back to himself, grasping for something for which he can’t yet find the words.  

Another high mark for Zagar’s film is in its approach to eroticism. There is a high-strung ecstacy, undoubtedly frightening and almost brittle, that runs through many of the sexual scenarios that young Jonah encounters. In capturing this elusive feeling, Zagar transports the viewer into Jonah’s headspace, into the mind of a child wrestling with his first sexual stirrings. For these scenes alone, We the Animals earns a spot among this year’s best films.

Notably, We the Animals differentiates itself from the recent Lean on Pete (2018). That is to say, Zagar’s film actively avoids delving into poverty porn or presenting itself as a morality play. When Jonah’s perspective widens and shadows are cast on the film’s other characters, it deepens their portraits, presenting these family members as being equal parts nurturing and destructive. Zagar challenges viewer to see these people as multifaceted, perhaps even paradoxical, and thus rooted in the real world.

Some films ask questions, whereas others make statements. Every once in a while, films like We the Animals sneak onto local arthouse screens. Such films find their truths in the visceral. Turning away from language, they reflect life back to the viewer through expressions only possible in cinema.

Rating: A- 

Tags: Reviews Cait Lore

A still from 'The House with a Clock in Its Walls'.
September 21, 2018
By Joshua Ray

If These Walls Could Tock

2018 / USA / 104 min. / Dir. by Eli Roth / Opens in wide release on Sept. 21, 2018

Eli Roth’s directing credit follows soon after Steven Spielberg's Amblin Studio logo, and it comes as the first surprise of the YA horror-novel adaptation The House with a Clock in Its Walls. The director’s debut feature, Cabin Fever (2002), is one of the goriest works of the new millennium, rendering leg-shaving a traumatic ordeal for viewers, much as Psycho (1960) did for shower-taking. He followed up his first film with the torture-porn “classics” Hostel (2005) and Hostel: Part II (2007) and hasn’t relented on the blood-letting since, including remaking the revenge saga Death Wish earlier this year. What horrors would Roth now present to House’s theoretical audience of children and families?

Always capable behind the camera, Roth makes films that are rarely dull but also rarely politically or thematically cogent. Cabin Fever hinted at a parable about the AIDS crisis that began in the 1980s. The filmmaker used one of that decade’s favorite horror tropes – sexually active young people meeting their ends deep in the woods – as a jumping-off point to explore mass hysteria and the increasing divide between the urban and rural United States. As with the Hostel films and the W. Bush-era American exceptionalism and jingoism that Roth attempted to satirize with those features, Cabin Fever ultimately falls short in producing any interesting ideas with respect to its real-world parallels.

Accordingly, in adapting John Bellairs’ book of the same name, one would be rightfully leery about what Roth and screenwriter Eric Kripke might smuggle into this family frightfest. Whether inherent in its source or not, The House with a Clock in Its Walls has coherent and surprisingly heartfelt ideas about trauma, loss, and the ways that human communities process such experiences. It achieves this while also being a mostly delightful, minor-sized gothic mystery complete with seed-spewing possessed pumpkins, a topiary lion with a case of leaf-induced irritable bowel syndrome, and Cate Blanchett and Jack Black as an unlikely pair of platonic partners. 

As Lewis Barnavelt, young actor Owen Vaccaro gets an opportunity to be a film’s focal point and exhibit a wide range of emotions after playing one of the Daddy’s Home (2016) children opposite Will Ferrell and Mark Wahlberg. Lewis oscillates between grief and wonder as the newly orphaned nerd moves into the ornately spooky mansion his tightly wound uncle, Jonathan Barnavelt (Jack Black), inherited from an old magic partner, Isaac Izard (Kyle MacLachlan). After noticing the stained-glass windows moving and his uncle ax-chopping at the walls (with a fun visual nod to The Shining [1980]) in search of some mysterious ticking, Lewis forces Jonathan and his stately yet somehow still-bumbling next-door neighbor Florence Zimmerman (Cate Blanchett) to come out as magic-makers

Under the tutelage of Florence and Jonathan, Lewis begins to cast his own spells with only minor misfires. The filmmakers mostly avoid the puberty allegory – a la Spider-man learning to shoot webs – instead using the magic as a way for the young warlock (“boy witch,” as Lewis keeps telling his uncle as if to puncture through fragile masculinity) to work through his grief and form a new family unit with the elder dark-arts-doers. Being the new kid in town, he has to contend with his share of bullying from schoolmates, but when he attempts to show off his nascent skills to a potential friend, Tarby (Sunny Suljic), he inadvertently awakens Izard, the recently deceased mechanic of the titular timepiece, causing pure hell to break loose. 

The post-World War II milieu of the fictional town of New Zebedee, Mich. enriches the film’s already-present ideas of trauma, collective and personal. Indeed, all the characters within this narrative are either sublimating their loss or displacing their shock. Izard created the clock after time spent in wartorn Germany. The mysterious ticking presence is actually a doomsday device, as it turns out, and obliterating the human race entirely is his personal reaction to the horrors witnessed in fighting the Nazis. After losing her family, Florence’s magical purpose is misplaced – often creating havoc for Lewis and Jonathan – but she self-actualizes as she finds new purpose in saving humanity. Jonathan is looking to reverse the wrong-doing his deceased cohort created after the two separated ways. Although he still has a proverbial hole in his heart from their personal and professional split, he gains confidence and rebuilds his spirit as he teaches Lewis. 

The heavy-handed material isn’t handled quite as deftly as the cultural critiques in the supreme Paddington films, but House is closer to the light-touch spirit of those film than such dramatic currents might suggest. Blanchett relishes the opportunity to elicit the laughs Ocean’s 8 (2018) didn’t allow. Her screwball abilities are showcased in her character’s magical misfires and in scenes of Jonathan and Florence bickering like a long-married couple who’ve spent way too much time together. Here, Black is more than serviceable, but elsewhere his hammy performance undermines the grandiosity that would credibly provoke the awe and wonder that Vaccaro displays. Black is often one-upped by his relatively inexperienced co-star in terms of comedic delivery.

Roth’s film is in tune with vintage Disney-produced dark fantasies like Watcher in the Woods (1980) and Escape to Witch Mountain (1975), and the director takes the opportunity to induce nightmares in his youngest viewers – just as those films did for their contemporary audiences. Kid-sized jump-scares like a springing cuckoo from a clock abound, and Roth even wrings some dread from set-pieces like a room full of re-animated evil dolls. Largely due to the overstuffed production design Roth is committed to showcasing, his direction overall lacks clock-like precision. To that end, the film’s final act is a mess of poor action directing – experience Roth admittedly lacks. It does, however, give viewers the opportunity to see Blanchett head-butt a pumpkin, and it’s moments like this that make The House with a Clock in Its Walls a worthy entry in the children’s chiller canon. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Lizzie'.
September 20, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Knick Knack Daddy Whack

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. by Craig William Macneill / Opened in select cities on Sept. 14, 2018; locally on Sept. 21, 2018

Director Craig William Macneill’s Gilded Age true-crime thriller Lizzie assumes the stance common to most mainstream historical accounts and dramatic depictions of Lizzie Borden. Namely, it takes as a given that Lizzie hacked to death with a hatchet both father Andrew Borden and stepmother Abby Borden (née Gray) at the family’s Fall River, Mass., home on the morning of Aug. 4, 1892. Macneill and screenwriter Bryce Kass don’t offer some convoluted alternative theory of the crime, at least with respect to the most fundamental questions of who, what, when, and where. In the filmmakers’ conception, Lizzie Borden was absolutely the whack-happy murderess that many biographies and a children’s folk rhyme have long insisted. (In contrast, author Frank Spiering proposed that Lizzie’s older sister, Emma, had a window of opportunity to commit the slayings, a theory that requires her to be dashing implausibly through the events of that late summer day, like Ferris Bueller scrambling to get back into bed before his parents return home.)

Having accepted the conventional historical wisdom vis-à-vis Lizzie’s guilt, Macneill’s film is primarily concerned with the why of the crime. On that score, the approach that Lizzie takes is a kitchen-sink one. The sensationalistic centerpiece of the film is a furtive lesbian tryst between Lizzie and the Bordens’ Irish maid, Bridget Sullivan – a baseless bit of speculation that appears to have originated with crime author Ed McBain’s 1984 novel Lizzie. However, the necessity of keeping this relationship secret is but one of the motives that drives this cinematic incarnation of Lizzie over a homicidal cliff. Macneill’s feature piles all the burdens, injustices, and humiliations of being a late-19th-century woman onto Lizzie’s shoulders, and then watches in glassy horror as she grows to regard the grisly murder of her own family as the most sensible egress from her intolerable situation.

Lizzie, then, is something of a revisionist feminist reimagining of the crime, one that regards its titular hatchet-wielder as a stand-in for all abused, marginalized, and de-humanized American women, past and present. This ambition unfortunately doesn’t quite match up with the film’s characterization of Lizzie, who, as portrayed by Chloë Sevigny, possesses a calculating inscrutability that clashes a bit with her ostensible ur-victimhood. Both approaches – the anti-heroic feminist fable and the ambiguous character study – are arguably meritorious, but they co-exist awkwardly when crammed into the same feature. This sort of unfocused storytelling is a recurring stumbling block for Lizzie. McNeill’s feature turns one of America’s many Crimes of the Century into a drab, ponderous melodrama-cum-legal thriller, circling back again and again to the same fateful August day to no discernible end, either dramatically or thematically.

Indeed, the film’s looping structure – while superficially the most novel aspect of Kass’ screenplay – turns out to be its most conspicuous weakness. The feature opens in the immediate aftermath of the murders, as a photographer captures the ghastly details of the crime scene and constables question a visibly dazed and detached Lizzie (Sevigny). As the story skips forward through the investigation and Lizzie’s ensuing arrest, trial, and acquittal, it also flashes back to some six months prior, and then repeatedly to the morning of the murders. Each time Lizzie revisits the events of Aug. 4, 1892, it reveals additional details about how the filmmakers imagine the crime might have been committed. The aim is obvious: In theory, this chopped-up structure allows them to conjure an aura of snaking mystery around a relatively well-known historical incident. In practice, it mostly just feels like a cheap and pointless way to squeeze some Rashomon-lite curlicues into an otherwise blunt tale of murder most foul.

A more straightforward chronological narrative – one that condensed the aftermath of the crime to a brief coda – might have been more successful, given that Lizzie is at its best in the long, doom-drenched flashback that leads up to the titular character’s bloody ax work. Here the film benefits from Macneill’s almost gothic approach to the material, which eschews more heavy-handed, allusive foreshadowing in favor of pure mood: a dire, suffocating atmosphere of entrapment that portends inevitable ruin. Unmarried adult sisters Lizzie and Emma (Kim Dickens) dwell with irritable, miserly father Andrew (Jamey Sheridan) and puckered stepmother Abby (Fiona Shaw) in a roomy but draughty New England house. A self-made capitalist with interests in textiles, furniture, and property development, Lizzie’s father has elbowed his way into the city’s new-money elite, but he still clings to his class resentments and a kind of performative frugality. (Refusing, for example, to upgrade the family home with electric or even gas lighting, insisting that candles be used.)

Andrew’s rancorous pride often clashes with Lizzie’s determination to do as she damn well pleases, but the antipathy between father and daughter runs deeper than a mere personality conflict. Everything about her father repulses Lizzie, from his callous business practices to his marriage – after the death of Lizzie’s own mother – to a woman whom she regards as a gold-digger. For his part, Andrew is plainly threatened by Lizzie’s intelligence and independence, and he leaps at every opportunity to belittle her and arbitrarily assert his dominance over her comings-and-goings.

In the months preceding the murders, the already-tense Borden household is sent into a slow tailspin by the arrival of the new live-in maid, Bridget (Kristen Stewart), a demure young Irish immigrant whom Mr. and Mrs. Borden condescendingly re-christen “Maggie.” Andrew immediately sets his lecherous eye on Bridget, and his nocturnal visits to her attic room are plainly heard (and studiously ignored) by the other members of the household. These sexual assaults only deepen Lizzie’s loathing of her father, but they also push her closer to Bridget, who responds to the other woman’s freely given courtesy, warmth, and frankness. It soon becomes apparent that there is an intense, ineffable erotic spark between the women, which in turn only amplifies Lizzie’s icy rage toward her father.

Her discontent reaches a breaking point when her stepmother’s oily brother, John Morse (Denis O’Hare), appears on the Bordens’ doorstep. Lizzie overhears her father’s intention to name John his primary heir, on the condition that he provide for his spinster step-nieces after Andrew and Anny pass on. To have no say in her rightful inheritance is galling to Lizzie, but to be under the thumb of “Uncle John” – a failed horse trader who, it is implied, molested her as a child – would be an outright horror show. And so, hemmed in on all sides by detestable family members and Gilded Age conventions, Lizzie begins to formulate a bloody plan of liberation, drawing Bridget into her scheme with a disquieting combination of romantic and classist cajoling.

There is, admittedly, plenty to admire in Lizzie, starting with Sevigny’s excellent performance, a marvelous mélange of boldness, wariness, vehemence, and droll contempt that hints at her character’s ahead-of-her-time personality. Kass’ dialogue isn’t especially accomplished, with the conspicuous exception of the low-key insults that Sevigny spits out like vinegar candy, as though her Lizzie were a Jane Austen heroine who had been drained of all sparkle and self-amusement. Underneath her “modern American lady” demeanor, however, is something strange and unfathomable, a murmur of psychopathic blankness. It reveals itself at the uncanny intersection between Lizzie’s calm disposal of blood-spattered evidence on one hand, and her frenzied hacking into the ruined pulp of her father and stepmother’s bodies on the other. It is glimpsed, memorably but briefly, when her uncle visits her jail cell during the trial: Dismissing John’s attempts to threaten her, Lizzie reminds him with a menacing twinkle that he is alone in a locked room with an accused hatchet-murderer.

Visually and aurally, Lizzie is most memorable when it leans into its horror inclinations, repurposing the elements of the gothic into a sort of gloomy, Puritan riff on Edith Wharton. In particular, the chilling sound design and the unnerving score by Jeff Russo (Fargo [2014-17]; The Night Of [2016]) establish a mood that can only be described as brittle; one senses the setting’s upper-crust New England formality veritably quivering with pent-up calamity and violence. At one point, the thunderous clamor of a black, horse-drawn carriage appearing out of the night gives Lizzie a jump-scare, in a moment that recalls turn-of-the-millennium gothics like Interview with the Vampire (1994), Mary Reilly (1996), and From Hell (2001). Elsewhere the film’s tone is more uncanny, adopting a flat surrealism that evokes horror-adjacent European directors such as Yorgos Lanthimos, Lars von Trier, and Michael Haneke. In a bracing sequence that brings to mind the latter filmmaker, Macneill slowly pans around Abby Borden’s sunlit bedroom to reveal Lizzie standing silently in the corner, completely nude and hatchet in hand.

Aside from these vivid stylistic components and Sevigny’s intricate lead performance, Lizzie doesn’t do much to distinguish itself, either as a morbid slice of feminist mythmaking or as a brooding work of psychological portraiture. The film is, ultimately, a substantial but somewhat flavorless serving of true-crime sordidness, served up with arthouse trimmings but not much inspiration or imagination. Neither Macneill nor Kass bother to develop the film’s themes except in the most literal-minded, clunky manner. For example, while a queer romantic infatuation drives the plot (in part), the film offers no insights or observations regarding what it means to be a lesbian in late-19th-century America. Lizzie and Bridget’s relationship is simply there, one of many cogs slowly moving Borden into position to fulfill her gruesome destiny. Other potentially intriguing aspects of the story, such as Lizzie’s epilepsy and panic attacks, are simply abandoned when it’s determined that they are not germane to the stale domestic, criminal, and courtroom drama. The film’s more evocative formal gestures and senseless structural trickery mainly serve to highlight the flat-footed ordinariness of Lizzie’s story, which – given the extraordinary historical facts and mysteries that undergird it – feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'White Boy Rick'.
September 14, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Crime Doesn't Pay

2018 / United States / 110 min. / Dir. by Yann Demange / Opens in wide release on Sept. 14, 2018

When Rick Wershe Jr. (Richie Merritt) begins peddling dope on the streets of Detroit, Mich., he’s a mere 15 years old. He’s doing so at the behest of a pair of FBI agents (Jennifer Jason Leigh and Rory Cochrane) and a local cop (Brian Tyree Henry), three officials who recognize the young man’s charisma and Zelig-like social adaptability. They utilize those natural charms as part of a grand scheme to crack down on a trail of corruption leading straight to the top of the local government. By the time he’s 18 years old, “White Boy Rick” – as he’s named by his drug-dealing cohorts – has survived a bullet to the gut, become one of the state’s biggest narcotics kingpins, and is about to begin a life sentence in a federal penitentiary, leaving behind his newborn baby.

Strictly speaking, these are not spoilers for White Boy Rick, as director Yann Demange’s new film is based on the true story of Rick Wershe Jr., a figure notable for having been slapped with the longest sentence ever handed down for a non-violent crime in his home state. Screenwriters Andy Weiss, Logan Miller, and Noah Miller – the latter identical twin brothers – structure their dramatization around people who seek to manipulate and support Rick. Richard Wershe Sr. (Matthew McConaughey) is a charismatic but down-on-his-luck arms dealer, a man who haggles over the price of fake AK-47s at a gun show only to turn around and sell them with his custom silencers at a steep markup. Wershe Sr. professes to bootstrapping ideals about supporting his immediate family – his elderly father (Bruce Dern) and mother (Piper Laurie), as well as his drug-addicted daughter, Dawn (Bel Powley) – but, against his better fatherly judgment, he still involves his son in the day-to-day details of his criminal enterprise.

Although Rich’s father puts his foot down about his son getting involved with the government authorities, the wide-eyed youngster is attracted like a moth to the flame that is a luxurious life in the drug underground. He rather easily gets “in” with the local operation, run by the Curry family. The eldest brother and leader of the group, Johnny “Lil Man” (Jonathan Majors), bestows Rick with his titular nickname. The volatile and violent Johnny becomes Rick’s main adversary in the three-plus years that this film spans, covering Rick’s quick ascension into notoriety and wealth, donning furs and keeping rolls of cash under his twin-size bed at his father’s house. His descent is even quicker: Years after the FBI stopped working with Rick, they elect to double-cross him, ultimately landing the 17-year-old in prison. 

If these narrative plot points feel familiar, it’s less likely because of the newsworthiness of the tale and more likely due to the film’s reverence for its genre. The film is so indebted to the many “based on a true story” crime sagas that came before it – Scorsese’s GoodFellas (1990), Ted Demme’s Blow (2001), and even David O’Russell’s irreverent American Hustle (2013) – that its remix of borrowed ideas means it only trembles in its forebears’ shadows. 

Even attempting to skim the surface of issues within the genre and the societies such films typically depict doesn’t elevate the proceedings. Rick adopts African-American Vernacular English and black style in order to fit in, but the film is content to merely depict this act of cultural appropriation instead of mining it for thematic substance. Illustrating the government-sponsored introduction of crack into drug-embattled neighborhoods is about as far as the film is willing to delve into government corruption and the oppression of people of color. The celebration of excess and the inevitable downfall of those who participate in it aren't even that enticing here. 

What White Boy Rick lacks in brains and brawn, it makes up for in humanity via its performers. As the junior Wesche, Meritt is a minor revelation in his screen debut: charming when his roleplaying requires it and equal parts reserved and playful in his more natural persona. His final scene with his major sparring partner, McConaughey, is the finest for actors in this film – masculine posturing incited by unstoppable regret and disappointment. In the past few years, McConaughey has been upending his swaggering persona, eventually winning an Academy Award for his portrayal of a renegade AIDS-medication peddler in Dallas Buyers Club (2013). Here, the subversion is still present but in a lower register, making this performance less of a stunt and more a well-rounded screen character. 

Any film with Laurie and Dern as an aged married couple is virtually guaranteed to be elevated by their presence, and White Boy Rick doesn’t fail there. They, along with Henry, Powley, and Eddie Marsan, are able to deliver moments of levity that do more to move the film forward than does its rote, plodding story. Based on his direction of this superb cast of veteran character actors and fresh-faced newcomers, as well as the film’s infrequent formal flourishes, it’s probable that Demange, who made the notable ‘71 (2014), has more memorable work in his future. White Boy Rick, however, is purely forgettable.

Rating: C

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'A Simple Favor'.
September 13, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Lady Vanishes

2018 / USA / 117 min. / Dir. by Paul Feig / Opens in wide release Sept. 14, 2018

A Simple Favor is a weird film, tonally speaking. It’s not the first foray into more bloody-minded fare for comedy-inclined director Paul Feig (Bridesmaids [2011]; Spy [2015]; Ghostbusters [2016]). Before breaking out as one of the 2010s’ few mainstream comedy filmmakers with name recognition, Feig was a television director for series ranging from his own creation Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) to the U.S. version of The Office (2005-13). Most salient to his newest film, however, are his stints helming the Showtime series Weeds (2005-12) and Nurse Jackie (2009-15), both of which could be described as character studies with dark-comedy flavoring, built on the framework of well-worn genres (the narco thriller and the hospital drama, respectively).

Feig’s latest feature isn’t exactly comparable to his work on those acclaimed shows. A Simple Favor is at its most successful when it’s foremost a rat-a-tat dark comedy and only secondarily a character piece or twisty noir. Still, the point stands that the director has a proven facility for maintaining a tricky, gestalt tone. On a more high-concept level, Feig has previously used varying tactics to blend comedy with flashier, bigger-budget stripes of entertainments. Spy approaches its cloak-and-dagger elements playfully but earnestly – it’s a solid 007-style actioner that just happens to also be a gut-busting satire – while Ghostbusters is essentially a big-hearted gal-pal comedy that takes place in a cartoonish sci-fi universe.

A Simple Favor represents yet another approach, one that is enticing in concept but decidedly strange in the execution. At the plot level, the film is a nasty, corkscrewing domestic noir, the sort replete with fakeouts, frame-ups, and double-crosses. Sketched out on paper in its entirety, the story looks an awful lot like one of Alfred Hitchcock’s seedier “criminal mischief” films (Shadow of a Doubt [1943]; Strangers on a Train [1951]; Dial M for Murder [1954]; Marnie [1964]). There’s also more than a dollop of trashy, early 1990s thrillers like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992) and Single White Female (1992).

What’s eccentric about A Simple Favor, however, is that this mystery plot takes place in the broad, R-rated reality that is now a mainstay of 21st-century multiplex comedies. Unlike Spy, Feig’s latest is emphatically not a satire, although it does have a touch of smug genre self-awareness. (“Are you Diabolique-ing me?” a character indignantly demands at one point.) The deceptions, betrayals, and murders that stud A Simple Favor are presented with mortal seriousness, but the characters’ reactions to the sordidness and violence around them are routinely sitcom-glib. It’s a novel approach, one adjacent to that of Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight (1998) and Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (2005), but distinctly pricklier and frostier. Unfortunately, Feig doesn’t blend the wisecracking and the bloody betrayals together as seamlessly as the aforementioned filmmakers; A Simple Favor sometimes shudders as its gears audibly change.

Which isn’t to say that the film is a failure. Far from it: A Simple Favor is a semi-precious gem of a film, the sort of stylish, grownup mystery that’s somewhat out of fashion in Hollywood these days. It’s a feature that enthusiastically embraces the red-meat elements of the genre, from the suspicious life-insurance policy to the pearl-handled pistol secreted inside a purse. A Simple Favor is also very much a star vehicle, in the sense that one cannot envision the film being even remotely as enjoyable with different lead actors. Not to diminish Feig’s direction or screenwriter Jessica’s Sharzer’s razor-sharp dialogue, but the success of the film hinges on two flawless casting choices.

The first is Anna Kendrick in the role of heroine Stephanie Smothers, a widowed “mommy vlogger” who streams how-to videos on gluten-free brownies and friendship bracelets from her immaculate kitchen in suburban Connecticut. Enthusiastic and Instagram-perfect, Stephanie is the sort of chirpy, somewhat dorky Type A character at which Kendrick excels. A Simple Favor exploits this seeming typecasting to slowly reveal the darker smudges in Stephanie’s persona, allowing Kendrick to stretch in ways she hasn’t since her early turn as overachieving adolescent shark Ginny in Rocket Science (2007).

The film’s other casting masterstroke is Blake Lively as Stephanie’s new “mom friend” Emily Nelson, a deliriously chic, acid-tongued blond goddess who works in NYC as a publicist for a narcissistic perfume and fashion mogul (Rupert Friend). Lively has transmuted herself into one of Hollywood’s more intriguing under-40 actresses in recent years, repurposing her lithe physicality and numinous California Girl aura in an idiosyncratic string of films (Savages [2012]; The Age of Adaline [2015]; The Shallows [2016]) since her tenure on the CW’s Gossip Girl ended in 2012. A Simple Favor provides her with the opportunity to go full femme fatale, strutting about in a succession of jaw-dropping outfits while exuding a magnetic, sinister inscrutability.

Obliged to socialize when it’s discovered that Stephanie’s 5-year-old son Miles (Joshua Satin) is friends with Emily’s son Nicky (Ian Ho), the women quickly establish an unlikely bond over gin martinis and uncensored girl talk. Truth be told, Stephanie is more than a little envious of Emily’s lifestyle: her expensive modernist home, her impossibly fashionable wardrobe, her high-powered career in the city, and her hunky novelist-cum-professor husband Sean (Crazy Rich Asians’ Henry Golding). Most of all, Stephanie envies Emily’s aggression, frankness, and refusal to apologize for anything. The women are similar in some respects – both are outgoing and self-assured in their way – but also high-contrast opposites, like living personifications of the dishonest Supermom vs. Career Bitch binary sold to many middle-class women.

One day Emily calls Stephanie to ask for a favor: Sean is in the U.K. visiting his bedridden mother, so could she please pick up Nicky after school and watch him for a while, just until Emily can put out some fires at work? Stephanie agrees, of course, but as the evening rolls on with nary a call or text from Emily, it’s apparent that something is amiss. Soon Sean is rushing back home to file a missing-person report with the police, whose initial suspicion is that Emily has fled into the arms of another man. Stephanie has her doubts about this, so she repurposes her vlog for a “Find Emily” campaign, using her subscribers to create a nationwide dragnet for tips on her friend’s whereabouts.

Privately, however, things start to get a little hinky, as Stephanie smoothly assumes the roles of surrogate mom to Nicky and consoling friend – perhaps more than a friend – to the distraught Sean. Soon enough she’s preparing picture-perfect meals for them in Emily’s stunning kitchen and giddily rifling through the countless outfits in Emily’s cavernous walk-in closet. Eventually, Sean receives the news that he was fearing: A car rented in Emily’s name has been found at the bottom of a lake, along with a fish-nibbled corpse. In the eyes of the genial, Columbo-esque police detective (Bashir Salahuddin) who keeps dropping by, Stephanie’s eager, perhaps unconscious colonization of Emily’s life now looks especially suspicious. However, what truly throws a monkey wrench into Stephanie’s nascent domestic bliss with Sean is Nicky’s bizarre claim that he recently spoke to his mom on the playground at his school. Is Emily truly gone? Given that Lively is only onscreen for about 30 minutes before vanishing from the film, despite receiving second billing, the answer seems obvious, although the film has far more twists up its sleeve than a mere character-death fakeout.

None of those twists are exactly original, however, and several of them are at once tediously predictable and downright soap-opera ludicrous. A Simple Favor is an archetypal example of a film with a trite, trashy thriller plot that still manages to be exceedingly enjoyable. It’s not so much a guilty pleasure as a “Why Not?” experiment, as though Feig melted down Laura (1944) and decanted it into the Bridesmaids mold just to see what would happen. With the exception of Lively’s lusciously vulpine performance, the film doesn’t have the cheek to unabashedly revel in its own trashiness, preferring to simply look on in amusement as Emily’s illicit past is unearthed and the betrayals start to pile up to a dizzying height. Still, it’s plain that Feig is having a lot of fun, even if his direction never exudes the same drunken delight as Jefferson Sage’s spot-on production design or Renne Ehrlich Kalfus’ absolutely stellar costumes.

For all its salacious skullduggery, A Simple Favor is more of a black comedy than a sensual psychological thriller. As the film’s alluring Woman in Trouble, Lively leaves a scorching erotic trail through the film, but she also holds her own in witty banter with her co-star, often deliberately stepping on Kendrick’s lines in a languorous and faintly menacing way. Kendrick, however, is the film’s MVP, delivering a marvelously exacting performance. As usual, she shines in the mode one might term “clumsy romcom heroine,” which obliges her to elicit schlimazel pathos without losing her sexy sparkle. Here, however, she punctuates Stephanie’s perky energy with self-effacing jokes and nervous demurrals to suggest murky depths. A less sophisticated performer might have implied simmering resentments, but Kendrick renders her character’s secret side as active rather than reactive — a cunning bird of prey, its eyes glittering with lust and avarice. As Emily’s guileless husband, Golding is his usual bland, dreamy self, which winds up being an asset in a film that is overwhelmingly focused on the personalities of its leads.

Apart from Kendrick and Lively, the film’s principal strength is Sharzer’s excellent adaptation of Darcey Bell’s original novel. A Paul Feig joint can very easily descend into a shaggy hangout film, but Sharzer’s screenplay constrains the director in the best possible way, keeping the proceedings crackling along in fine noir fashion. That this is a 2018 studio comedy at heart rather than a classical throwback is apparent in some distinctly Feig-ish characters, particularly Linda Cardellini’s whiskey-chugging punk-rock artist and a Greek chorus of neighborhood parents (Andrew Rannells, Kelly McCormack, and Aparna Nancherla) who serve up deadpan snark at the lurid misfortune unfolding around them.

Like all of Feig’s recent features, A Simple Favor is centered on women’s experiences, and it smuggles in some trenchant critiques of society’s unreasonable, no-win expectations for mothers, as well as the submissive social tics that women routinely adopt to navigate the patriarchy. (Stephanie’s inability to stop apologizing for herself is a running gag that becomes more caustic than charming as the film rolls on.) As in Gone Girl (2014), the film’s feminist ethos is debatably undercut by its amoral, scheming female characters, but A Simple Favor is ultimately much more of a juicy showcase for its lead actors than a fist-pumping celebration of womanhood. And rightly so, since no one learns lessons in a properly trashy noir: They just get more cynical or very dead.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt