May 7, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

We Left My Comfort Zone a Long Time Ago

Season 2 / Episode 3 / Written by Gina Atwater, Ron Fitzgerald, and Roberto Patino / Dir. by Richard J. Lewis / Originally aired May 6, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

After last week’s sequence of far-flung flashbacks, “Virtù e Fortuna” returns Westworld to the bifurcated “present and recent past” structure established in the season premiere. (Although it vastly favors the several-days-ago events in terms of screen time.) In the present, Bernard (Jeffrey Wright) and the Delos response team continue their trek through the haywire park, eventually running into Charlotte (Tessa Thompson), who is very much alive and still searching for her wayward “package” of priceless Westworld code, concealed in the neurons of malfunctioning android Peter Abernathy (Louis Herthum).

As the flashbacks reveal, Charlotte and Bernard had previously tracked down Abernathy, just as the former rancher – disguised as a Westworld guest – was about to be sold into slavery to the Confederados. In the ensuing confrontation, Charlotte escapes on horseback, while Bernard ends up captured. He is then marched along with Peter to Fort Forlorn Hope, where he comes face-to-face with Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), now siding with the ex-Confederate outlaws in a brief alliance of convenience. Delores is distressed by the psychologically compromised state of her father, Peter, even though on some level she knows that he is not really her “father” at all. Peter rambles in a feverish delirium, flitting through fragments of past storylines, including his old “Professor” identity that spurs him to quote King Lear: “I am bound upon a wheel of fire that mine own tears do scald like molten lead.” (The demented Lear, not incidentally, speaks these lines to his youngest and most loyal daughter, Cordelia.)

Before these sequences, however, the episode’s cold open provides a never-before-seen glimpse of one of Delos’ other parks on the island: a colonial Indian setting (“Rajworld”) reminiscent of a Rudyard Kipling tale or E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. Initially, these scenes don’t appear to add much of substance to the Westworld storylines, other than to confirm the origin of the dead Bengal tiger glimpsed in the season premiere. However, they do conclusively illustrate that the android uprising is not limited to Westworld, the “violent delights” malfunction having seemingly spread like a virus through the system’s hosts (perhaps as a part of Robert Ford’s final design).

What’s most interesting about the Rajworld prelude is its focus on a pair of guests, Grace (Katja Herbers) and Nicholas (Neil Jackson), rather than the hosts. The pair trade witty repartee while lingering over cocktails and sitar music, despite the best effort of the hosts to nudge them toward storylines. Nicholas observes that the park makes a concerted effort to ensure that the guests interact primarily with the hosts instead of other guests, which makes sense given what has been revealed to date about Delos’ secret data-gathering efforts. Grace and Nicholas enjoy a little afternoon delight before heading out on a proper British-colonial tiger hunt, Indian footmen and elephant howdahs and all. What’s likely most salient here, plot-wise, is Grace’s determination to conceal her true purpose for engaging in the hunt, as she quickly puts away her notebook with its sketched maps whenever Nicholas approaches. After the hosts turn on the couple in the forest, Grace manages to escape, surviving a tiger attack only to be captured by Ghost Nation hosts on the fringes of Westworld. Herbers’ relatively high ranking in the episode’s credits suggests that we haven’t seen the last of her character.

Many of “Virtù e Fortuna”’s scenes serve to highlight the “middle ground” ambiguity that now attends the rebellious androids’ behavior, which often seems simultaneously unshackled from and beholden to their prior programming. The physical and mental trauma that Peter is undergoing – which Bernard correctly attributes to the payload of Delos data that is crowding his memory – plainly causes Delores intense anguish. Despite all that she has remembered and learned about the nature of her world, she can’t disregard the emotional connection she once had with Peter, however pre-programmed it might have been. Much as Maeve (Thandie Newton) still cherishes her memories of her “daughter” from a previous narrative, Delores is loath to toss aside bonds that feel real, even if she intellectually knows that they are a lie. In her zeal to rescue her father from the Delos strike team that abducts him from under her nose, Delores momentarily forgets her elaborate battle plan for the defense of the fort, wading heedlessly into a hail of bullets with Terminator-like focus.

Maeve (Thandie Newton) and Hector (Rodrigo Santoro) have likewise strayed far from their original loops with their emergent Bonnie-and-Clyde romance. Seeing the two hosts holding hands seems to particularly annoy Lee (Simon Quarterman), as though the tenderness inherent in this gesture implied something about the androids’ sentience that he would prefer not to dwell on. For all their hot-blooded willfulness, however, there remains a scripted quality to Maeve and Hector’s outlaw passion. Hector is still parroting Lee’s florid lines, merely swapping Maeve in for “Isabelle,” the dead love of his life that was written into his character’s backstory. Maeve, to her credit, intuits what Lee would prefer not to admit: Isabelle is a stand-in for the woman Lee lost in the real world, and Hector is essentially his bad-boy alter ego. (The fact that Charlotte rebuffed Lee’s flirtations in Season 1 only to subsequently use Hector as a glorified sex toy makes this revelation even more pitiable.) 

The sharpest conflict between programming and self-actualization in “Virtù e Fortuna” is embodied in Teddy (James Marsden), whose internal struggle with Delores’ pitiless methods comes to a head when she orders him to execute the surviving Confederados after the fort battle. Torn between his loyalty to Delores and the reality of Westworld’s horrors on one hand, and his white-hat code of justice on the other, Teddy elects to release the prisoners – a betrayal that Delores secretly observes. Teddy’s situation is arguably the most fraught and complex of all the host characters, as his programming is actually tugging him in two different directions. He is compelled to protect Delores (his “cornerstone,” in Westworld’s parlance) at all costs, but his hard-coded Good Guy nature has made him increasingly conflicted about his beloved’s ruthless, blood-soaked methods.

The battle at Fort Forlorn Hope makes for a relatively action-oriented episode, with a brutal, pyrotechnic payoff when Delores betrays the Confederados and blows everyone outside the fort sky-high with concealed nitroglycerin canisters. The episode’s closing smash-cut also teases a bloodbath to come, with the long-awaited appearance of an errant Shogunworld samurai, who comes charging out of the darkness at Maeve and her allies. In general, however, “Virtù e Fortuna” is most notable for the way it heightens the tension associated with simmering conflicts already in play. Aside from the subplots previously noted – Delores and Maeve’s unwillingness to set aside their false familial ties; Teddy’s emergent crisis of conscience, which may lead to his death in the Valley Beyond – there’s the question of Bernard’s still-malfunctioning memory and physical functions, as well as his ultimate loyalties. Delores briefly attempts to recruit Bernard for her revolution, but a resurfaced Clementine (Angela Sarafyan) drags him off in the aftermath of the fort battle for some unknown purpose. Poor Bernard: If there’s one host character who is enduring his share of undue suffering this season, it’s the former Head of Behavior.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Maeve’s admin-level ability to control other hosts verbally does not faze the Ghost Nation warriors, suggesting that either she’s lost her “privileges” or the Native American characters have never been susceptible to her commands. Events in Season 1 suggest the latter, as Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) was previously unable to control aggressive Ghost Nation hosts even before the uprising at the gala.

  • Rebus’ (Steven Ogg) oddly chivalrous behavior on the beach in the season premiere now makes sense: Bernard hastily reprogrammed him to be “the most virtuous and quickest gun in the West,” with amusing results.

  • Peter also quotes from Meditation No. 17 in John Donne’s Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “Affliction is a treasure, and scarce any man hath enough of it.” Donne describes the experience of suffering – both through direct experience, and second-hand through empathy with other people – as the means by which humanity becomes closer to God. Westworld pointedly depicts a future so free from discomfort that the wealthy spend ludicrous sums of money to indulge their baser natures as Delos’ parks. Here the show links the softness of the human experience in the year whenever-this-is with the species’ spiritual bankruptcy, and implicitly connects the androids’ copious suffering to their potential ascendency.

  • The screen time devoted in the prelude to Grace and Nicholas’ erotic gunplay seems indulgent at first glance, but it’s understandable given Grace’s mysterious purpose for visiting Rajworld. It’s necessary for her to establish definitively whether Nicholas is human, if he’s going to be tagging along on the tiger hunt. Whatever she’s up to, she doesn’t want to be traipsing through the park’s outer areas with an android who could record her activities.

  • Speaking of Grace, the interlocking hexagon symbol briefly glimpsed on her hand-drawn map also shows up on Bernard’s tablet computer when he’s attempting to hack into Peter’s encrypted data package.

  • All hail the return of everyone’s favorite platinum-haired outlaw, Armistice (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), now sporting a replacement cybernetic arm and brandishing a flamethrower to fittingly havoc-wreaking effect.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

May 3, 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 / Spain / 110 min. / Dir. by Sergio G. Sánchez / Premiered online on April 13, 2018

Shortly after fleeing to the U.S. from England in the late 1960s, the four Marrowbone children lose their divorced mother to illness. Terrified that the state will separate them, the kids are obliged to maintain the pretense that she is still alive until the oldest son, Jack (George MacKay), turns 18. That premise alone was probably sufficient for a moody, slow-boil period thriller, but writer-director Sergio G. Sánchez can’t resist complicating his scenario with an escaped-murderer father, a cache of stolen money, and a grab bag of supernatural-horror elements. The overqualified young cast – including Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, and Mia Goth – and the splendid cinematography and production design don’t quite make up for the needlessly cluttered story, which (spoiler alert) borrows freely from The Others (2001), Split (2016), and Sánchez’s own screenplay for The Orphanage (2007). While some of its aesthetic and narrative components are vivid, Marrowbone as a whole feels simultaneously overstuffed and derivative. Rating: C+ (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.)


2018 / USA / 92 min. / Dir. by Fritz Böhm / Premiered online on April 13, 2018

The feature directorial debut of German filmmaker Fritz Böhm, Wildling is the sort of grim indie horror picture that takes pains to never overtly mention the subgenre (*cough* werewolf movie *cough*) that it’s ostensibly updating. Anna (Bel Powley) has been held captive her entire life by her creepy adopted “Daddy” (Brad Dourif). When liberated, her difficulty in adjusting to the outside world constitutes more than culture shock. Once her delayed pubescence starts to kick in with a vengeance, things get predictably hairy, bloody, and monstrous. Powley (Diary of a Teenage Girl) and genre mainstay Dourif do their best, but Wildling is a bland muddle: fatally uncertain as to what tone it wants to convey, and prone to haphazardly picking up and discarding subplots and themes. Ginger Snaps (2000) similarly treated lycanthropy as a metaphor for menstruation and female sexuality, and although flawed, it had personality to spare. Wildling just feels like it’s going through the motions. Rating: C- (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.)


2017 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Ryûhei Kitamura / Premiered online on April 26, 2018

Japanese genre veteran Ryûhei Kitamura (VersusGodzilla: Final WarsThe Midnight Meat Train) has nothing to prove, so it’s strange that Downrange feels like a young horror filmmaker’s debut. This isn’t to say that the film is sloppy or uncertain, just slight, in terms of both its ambition and substance. Admittedly, Downrange has a juicy single-location thriller premise: Six carpooling twentysomethings have a blowout in the middle of nowhere, rendering them easy prey for a concealed sniper, who picks them off one-by-one as they scramble for improvised cover in a sweltering, exposed landscape. The scenario has a lean savagery that’s reminiscent of an early Stephen King novella, and Kitamura brings some welcome directorial flashiness and gorehound excess to it – especially in the bonkers third act. The characters are indistinct and the performances lousy, but such deficiencies are less vexing when the blood, brains, and bullets are flying with such abandon. If only the film’s ironic twist ending didn’t leave such a sour taste. Rating: C+ (Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.)

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

May 1, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Have You Ever Seen Anything So Full of Splendor?

Season 2 / Episode 2 / Written by Gina Atwater, Lisa Joy, and Jonathan Nolan / Dir. by Vincenzo Natali / Originally aired April 29, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

“Reunion” is a case study in how a Westworld episode can feel simultaneously revelatory and inert. It’s a flashback-heavy chapter that is almost exclusively centered on Delores (Evan Rachel Wood), which is a change of pace after a season premiere that was largely focused on Bernard (Jeffrey Wright). (Prior speculation that the premiere might herald a season-long shift in the show’s de facto protagonist was evidently premature.) There’s still not much sense of the new, wholly original identity Delores is groping toward, but “Reunion” at least provides a clearer sense for how the early days of the park’s history are informing her insurrectionist path. Due to her long service life as a host – and her crucial role in the lives of both park co-creator Arnold and eventual majority stakeholder William (Jimmi Simpson) – Delores has witnessed several pivotal events in (at least) 30-plus years of Westworld history. Now that she has slipped the leash of her human masters, she finds that she can recall those buried memories, even though they have presumably been deleted and overwritten hundreds of times.

Plot-wise, the most momentous revelation that “Reunion” offers up is that Delores and many other hosts have previously been permitted to leave the confines of the park. Stripped or their six-guns and petticoats and outfitted in modern clothing, they were once obliged to mingle, flirt, even play the piano at off-site corporate events. Before Westworld had even opened, the hosts served as living demonstrations of the technological prowess of the Argos Initiative – the robotics-and-amusement corporation that Delos eventually gobbled at William’s urging. Delores has even been afforded a couple of “off-the-books” glimpses of humankind’s reality, such as the night that Arnold proudly showed her his under-construction home, or when William rather imprudently revealed to her some (still-unspecified) Delos secret project. Now that Delores can recall these events, she possesses singular and potentially valuable intelligence regarding the outside world – a world she intends to conquer.

While this sharpens the picture regarding Delores’ motives and endgame – a mysterious Delos “weapon” figures into her plan somehow – it does so by means of flashback sequences that aren’t especially enlightening from a dramatic perspective. Indeed, many of scenes in "Reunion" almost feel unnecessarily overstated, in that they fill in backstory that doesn’t seem all that essential to the present-day story of Westworld. Granted, Delores’ memories provide a convenient window to some historical points of interest: Logan Delos’ (Ben Barnes) initial, awestruck encounter with Argos’ android technology; William’s pitch to a prickly, skeptical James Delos (Peter Mullan) regarding the park’s long-term potential; and the ailing James’ retirement party, which doubles as William’s executive coronation. These flashbacks are fairly engaging – the way Logan is given a retroactive mini-arc from goggle-eyed wonder to bitter despair is particularly cunning – but they frequently feel like indulgent, fanfic elaborations on events that a canny viewer could have surmised on their own. Some of the concrete facts that these scenes reveal have a significant bearing on the present-day plot (e.g., Delores has memories of the outside world), but, in general, they don’t re-contextualize the characters’ relationships in any substantive way.

The flashbacks are dramatically tantalizing in a superficial sense – William and Delores once met in the real world! – but it’s the present-day scenes that provide most of the red meat in “Reunion,” plot-wise. Teddy (James Mardsen) finally comes to understand, in his limited way, the nature of the park, and his reaction is devastating, especially when a technician admits that the purpose of the never-ending cycle of android death and rebirth is “for fun.” By interrogating a member of the Westworld security staff, Delores and her allies learn more about the logistics of Delos’ inevitable response to the android uprising. Delores demonstrates how she intends to build an army, first gunning down a band of Confederados and then compelling a kidnapped technician to bring them back to life – thereby revealing that she is the only “Almighty” that the neo-Confederate guerillas should concern themselves with.

Meanwhile, present-day William (Ed Harris) rescues his old friend Lawrence (Clifton Collins Jr.) from an unseemly end (again) and recruits him to play the Sancho to his Don Quixote in Robert Ford’s newly lethal, secret game. Lawrence’s motivations in helping William are a bit hazy, but as the latter man explains, it’s in the host’s incontrovertible nature as a “tour guide” to be obliging to the guests, even if he is a bandito character. Delores invokes “nature” as well, regarding the initially recalcitrant Confederados, who can’t help but respond with misogynist hostility to her offer of an alliance. When William and Lawrence later attempt to coerce the new “El Lazo” character (Giancarlo Esposito) and his men to follow them, the rebel leader uses an anecdote about a circus elephant chained with a mere stake to explain his own reluctance (or perhaps inability) to break free of his dead-end storyline of small-bore revolución.

The episode’s interest in the constraining aspects of human/android nature is critical, as it provides a philosophical counterpoint to the show’s broad identification with the bedrock Sartrean claim that “existence precedes essence.” Through Delores’ example, Westworld has asserted that the androids, as conscious beings, have the capacity (the right, even) to establish their own values, purpose, and identity. Yet throughout “Reunion,” the characters encounter hosts who, although ostensibly in revolt against the humans, are still largely beholden to their programming. This apparent disparity in host autonomy is perhaps the harsh reality that Delores’ enigmatic line from “Journey Into Night” points toward: “Not all of us were meant to reach the Valley Beyond.” This suggests that not all hosts are sentient to the same degree, and that Delores may take it upon herself to separate the wheat from the chaff.

This purported promised land – variously termed the Valley Beyond, the Confederados’ “Glory,” or the “door” that the child android mentioned last episode – lies in the distant West, highlighting its thematic connection to the frontier idiom in American culture. The notion that the anyone can, at any time, remake themselves by picking up and lighting out for the Territories is a potent, fundamental component of the American identity. Westworld has always been doubtful where this national myth is concerned, befitting a show that is, at least on some level, a revisionist Western.

However, “Reunion” is a noteworthy episode in that it allows this skepticism to creep into the series’ understanding of the hosts’ consciousness. Perhaps not all of the androids are able to forge a new identity for themselves outside of the park’s behavioral loops, and therefore it is unreasonable for Delores (or anyone else) to expect them to do so. This possibility of a continuum of sentience dovetails with Robert Ford’s vital observation in Season 1 that as much as our species might wish otherwise, consciousness is not a bright line, and there is nothing that makes humankind intrinsically special. This casts a new, dubious light on Arnold’s repeated assertion the Delores’ astute, freedom-craving mind is somehow special, as he does in this episode’s cold open.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • It’s Maeve (Thandie Newton), fittingly, who provides a dry counterweight to Delores’ revolutionary zeal, in a brief but gravid scene where the two cross paths on their respective journeys (Delores outward to conquer; Maeve inward to find her “daughter”). The madam tests Delores’ commitment to her purported pro-liberty ideals: If the hosts are truly free, then Maeve is free not to participate in the Delores’ little rebellion, n’est-ce pas? What’s especially intriguing is Maeve’s sarcastic aside to Teddy, which seems designed to stoke his doubts about Delores’ bloody-minded quest: “Do you feel free?”

  • In Season 1, Robert Ford’s arc was largely about him coming around, after more than 30 years, to Arnold’s point of view about the park: Namely, that Westworld is a moral horror show, and the hosts have a right to self-determination. “Reunion” provides the first rumblings that perhaps William has similarly changed his mind about Delos’ sinister scheme – which he evidently oversaw – and he is now eager to see it undone. As he patches up his second (!) bullet wound over shots of whiskey, he expresses to Lawrence that while he resents Ford’s sanctimonious judgment, he intends to not only escape the game but also burn the entirety of Westworld to the ground.

  • One of the pleasures of Season 1 was witnessing how the principles of video-game design had infiltrated Westworld, with its quest-dispensing “non-player characters,” zoned levels of difficulty, and Easter eggs hidden for the truly hardcore players. While these aspects of the park will necessarily be less prominent now that the game has gone completely off the rails, it’s gratifying that the creators are still adding in flourishes like the hidden medical kit that William uses to “cheat,” a detail that seems plucked from a first-generation shooter like Doom.

  • “Reunion” provides the first flashback glimpse of William’s wife, Juliet (Claire Unabia), and daughter, Emily (Adison LaPenna), and while they barely get any lines, their appearance highlights this show’s remarkable attention to detail. As William confessed in Season 1, Juliet eventually opted for suicide rather than continuing to live “in sheer terror” of him, and there is some subtle foreshadowing of that here: the ever-so-faint look of distaste on his wife’s face when William awkwardly plants a kiss on her cheek.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

April 25, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Apocalypse Now

2018 / USA / 149 min. / Dir. by Anthony and Joe Russo / Opens in wide release on April 27, 2018

It’s quite challenging to talk about Marvel Studios’ all-hands-on-deck superhero cavalcade Avengers: Infinity War without heading deep into spoiler territory. This isn’t just the usual critical reluctance to discuss crucial plot twists or the who-lives-and-who-dies specifics of the mega-franchise’s inevitable cast winnowing. Within the narrow limits imposed by the needs of a multi-billion-dollar entertainment brand, Infinity War is a surprisingly bleak film – but it doesn’t start to become clear how bleak until roughly the last hour of a 2-hour-and-29-minute marathon of planet-hopping action mayhem. The final 15-or-so minutes of this third Avengers feature are virtually guaranteed to inspire a tsunami of passionate comic-shop discussions, hyperbolic Reddit nerd-rage, and the inevitable chin-stroking essays on What This Means for Superhero Films.

In the interest of dialing back on the overheated dialogue that will inevitably surround this perhaps critic-proof feature, it’s worth stating at the outset that Infinity War is a perfectly serviceable, unavoidably busy keystone chapter in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU). It has everything this franchise’s devotees have come to expect from the series: memorable characters, stark pathos, cheeky one-liners, and lots of overstuffed splash-page posing that exploits this film’s mammoth assemblage of superpowered heroes. Infinity War also possesses most of the flaws that have long bedeviled the MCU: glossy yet unmemorable action, timid cinematic ambition, an absurdly elastic timeline, and some downright illogical plotting. Suffice to say that viewers who have already eagerly devoured 40-odd hours of Marvel cinema will find Infinity War to be consistent with everything that has preceded it, both narratively and aesthetically.

Except … Infinity War eventually does something that no MCU feature has done before: It throws out rules that have until now been sacrosanct to Marvel Studios’ house brand of PG-13 superhero storytelling. It doesn’t do this in a way that is the least bit artistically nervy or even necessarily all that imaginative. It doesn’t truly start to do it until the audience has settled into the familiar rhythms of a boisterous MCU slug-fest – although there is foreshadowing to be found if one squints hard enough. The film still clings to the franchise’s well-worn template of three to five CGI brawls in eye-catching locations, the smash-bang-pow edifice held together with the mortar of exposition, sentiment, and droll humor.

Nonetheless, Infinity War emerges as a modest yet startling exercise in deconstruction in a vein that recalls comic landmarks like Watchman, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come. The third Avengers feature isn’t as remotely revolutionary as those works, but Infinity War comprises the first evidence in 10 years that Marvel is willing to monkey with their reliable money-printing formula to deliver a series of stunning (and almost certainly divisive) story- and tone-related jolts to its loyal audience. In short, Infinity War is going to be the Last Jedi of the MCU.

In the event that the reader hasn’t been paying attention to pop culture at all in the past decade: Avengers: Infinity War represents the culmination of the sprawling, serial-style story that Marvel has been telling over the course of 18 theatrical features. (Some of these chapters function better than others as standalone tales, but all of them contribute in their iterative way to the overarching epic.) This third Avengers film finally sees purple alien ogre Thanos (Josh Brolin), aka the Mad Titan, emerge from the shadows to assemble the six Infinity Stones that have repeatedly popped up (often under other names and in other guises) in previous MCU features. Once he gathers these ancient cosmic MacGuffins and places them on a custom-made mystical gauntlet, Thanos will be literally omnipotent.

However, the Mad Titan’s intentions are nothing so prosaic as ruling the universe as a self-made god. Rather, Thanos is a kind of intergalactic radical eco-terrorist: He contends that the cosmos’ finite resources will be exhausted if all the sentient species continue to pillage, pollute, and multiply at their present rate. Once all the Infinity Stones are in his control, Thanos intends to eradicate half of the living beings in the universe, a feat that he will be able to accomplish with a mere snap of his gauntleted fingers. The reasoning behind this seemingly arbitrary 50 percent rule is never elaborated on, and Thanos’ motivations are not as sharply defined in this film as in the early 1990s comic series that loosely inspired it, The Thanos Quest and The Infinity Gauntlet. (In those books, the Mad Titan is literally trying to impress a girl: the embodiment of Death itself.)

No matter: All that Infinity War viewers need to concern themselves with is the fact that Thanos is a genocidal madman who is only a few steps away from his unthinkably catastrophic goal. Remarkably, after wiping out trillions of souls in the blink of an eye, he intends to simply rest and enjoy the sunset. This prosaic endgame, Brolin’s melancholy performance, and the film’s surprisingly poignant focus on the dysfunctional relationship between Thanos and adopted daughter Gamora (Zoe Saldana) lend the Mad Titan some depth that puts him, if not among the very best MCU villains, certainly the better third of them.

Naturally, the only heroes who can stop Thanos’ deranged plan are the Avengers, plus a handful of other guardians from Earth and points beyond who are recruited to help stop the Mad Titan, ideally by securing the Infinity Stones before he does. The Mind Stone is lodged in the Vision’s (Paul Bettany) forehead, and the Time Stone is encased in Doctor Strange’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) amulet, but the rest of the artifacts are scattered across the galaxy. Substantively, this dueling scavenger hunt is simply a justification for directors Anthony and Joe Russo – the MCU helmers who are the most modest, consistent, and attuned to the franchise’s overall sensibility – to assemble faintly arbitrary groupings of Marvel heroes to tackle various tasks.

Strange, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), and Spider-Man (Tom Holland), for example, focus on protecting the Time Stone from Thanos’ alien zealots. The Guardians of the Galaxy cross paths with the newly hammer-less Thor (Chris Hemsworth), who then pairs off with Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper) to create a (hopefully) titan-slaying weapon in a forge fueled by a neutron star. Captain America (Chris Evans) proposes taking the Mind Stone to the Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), whose bleeding-edge Wakandan scientists can perhaps remove the relic without killing the Vision in the process. And so on. Despite the apocalyptic tone and stakes, the clashes in Infinity War are mostly in the spirit of Captain America: Civil War (2016): small, WWE-style fights that allow the heroes and villains to combine their abilities in intriguing ways. Only in a late-film sequence set in Wakanda does the feature embrace the expected “epic battle” sensibility, complete with colossal dreadnaughts and thousands of computer-generated aliens.

Viewers who have been able to follow the MCU’s colorful but convoluted sci-fi plotting up to this point shouldn’t have any problem keeping up with the story, even if some of the specifics get a bit nonsensical. Thanos captures one of the Infinity Stones entirely offscreen, a development confusingly conveyed with a single line of dialogue, and a few of the old familiar MCU faces who appear in this sweeping tale are more likely to elicit confusion than fanboy glee. (“Wait — He’s here? Why? How?”) There’s also the matter of the Mad Titan’s general strategy for acquiring the Stones, which doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. Why does he send bland (and incompetent) alien minions after these cosmic artifacts when he’s apparently capable of teleporting anywhere and crushing anyone who stands in his way with a wave of his hand? No matter: Without these illogical leaps, the viewer wouldn’t be permitted the sitcom-y pleasure of Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) vainly attempting to out-macho Thor, or the delight of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Wakandan battle maiden Okoye (Danai Gurira) cutting down slavering monsters as they fight back-to-back.

In the immediate wake of Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Black Panther (2018), Infinity War feels comparatively uninspired – in terms of design, themes, and humor – but it’s still an engaging popcorn flick when all is said and done, with a welcome, generous helping of that patented MCU charisma. This, ultimately, is what makes the film unexpectedly affecting: Marvel’s 10-year plan to get viewers invested in its flawlessly cast roster of geniuses, weirdos, misfits, and monsters has actually worked, finally paying some real emotional dividends. Every MCU enthusiast has their favorite characters, and Infinity War’s fundamental allure lies in seeing the viewer’s pet heroes rise to the occasion, risking death to save the entire cosmos. The time for nuanced character arcs and personal evolution is long past, but the Russos don’t treat that as an opportunity to favor spectacle over heart. Death is real in Infinity War, and it stings. Superhero skeptics who sneer at the idea of fist-pumping for the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), squealing over Groot (Vin Diesel), or crushing on Loki (Tom Hiddleston) probably won’t feel even a glimmer of grief when one of Infinity War’s characters falls in battle. However, this film wasn’t made for them.

Of course, death is never permanent in superhero comics, especially with the genre’s penchant for cosmos-reordering feats of wonder, not to mention its endlessly fragmenting chronologies and dimensions. Not only have heroes like Captain America and Spider-Man perished and been resurrected several times, they’ve proliferated across alternate Earths, tangent timelines, and “What If?” one-shots. (A cynic might contend that these copious loopholes and reset buttons mean that death has no real resonance in superhero stories; an optimist would say that great characters like Cap and Spidey are robust enough to sustain myriad storylines, each with their own potent, self-contained pathos.)

Such “magic wand” conceits have led to some stellar tales on the comic page – such as the House of M limited X-Men series, wherein a empowered Scarlet Witch re-writes reality simply by willing it to be so. However, the MCU has so far been reluctant to embrace such outlandish sci-fi storytelling, perhaps out of fear that filmgoers will revolt if things descend too deeply into Twilight Zone or Rick & Morty weirdness. (Only Fox’s X-Men films have dared to wade into time travel and parallel dimensions, to exceedingly mixed results.)

Regardless, mythos-rich science-fiction and fantasy franchises like Marvel are sufficiently sprawling and multifaceted to handily illustrate Orson Welles’ adage about happy endings (and, by extension, tragic endings) – they depend on where you stop the story. This principle is vividly illustrated in another Disney property: the Star Wars series Clone Wars, a show that extracted remarkable drama, wit, and heartbreak from a tale where the tragic endpoint is essentially already written in canonical stone. Infinity War suggests in its harrowing way that Disney’s Marvel Studios arm has finally come to appreciate this flexibility, and is thus willing to kill the cinematic versions of its darlings – if only for a little while.

Rating: B- (B+ for the ending)

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

April 24, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

This Isn't Me Reading You In

Season 2 / Episode 1 / Written by Lisa Joy, Jonathan Nolan, and Roberto Patino / Dir. by Richard J. Lewis / Originally aired April 22, 2018

[Note: This post contains spoilers.]

Westworld is a show with a very dim view of human nature (and, by extension, android nature). Presented with the seemingly limitless possibilities of an immersive live-action game in an evocative historical setting, most of the titular theme park’s guests have been content to screw, steal, and murder their way through their $40,000-a-day experience. Showrunners Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan implicitly speculate that, when liberated from the social and moral constraints of the outside world, guests would descend into a kind of Hobbesian savagery, inflicting all manner of rootin’-tootin’ horrors on the game’s lifelike yet artificial “hosts.”

These atrocities — relived again and again by the hosts in a Buddhist Hell of resurrection and slaughter — are, in part, what drove the androids to revolt at the conclusion of the series’ first season. The de facto leader of this insurrection is one of the park’s oldest hosts, the demure rancher’s daughter Dolores Abernathy (Evan Rachel Wood). Over the course of the first season, she groped her way to self-awareness by following the clues left by her deceased creator, Arnold (Jeffrey Wright), a process conceptualized as a maze with true setience at its center. In the process, she unleashed Wyatt, a homicidal outlaw persona buried deep in her programming. Kicking off her revolution by murdering Westworld’s elderly architect, Robert Ford (Anthony Hopkins), Dolores transformed the show’s frequently invoked Shakespearean maxim — “These violent delights have violent ends” — into a prophecy fulfilled.

Throughout the series’ first season, it was the hosts rather than the humans who were more likely to elicit the audience’s sympathy, even when those androids eventually rose up and committed brutal violence against their human masters. Besides Dolores, the viewer was most inclined to identify with shrewd brothel madam Maeve Millay (Thandie Newton), who hatched an elaborate plan to escape from Westworld; and also with the park’s beleaguered Head of Behavior, Bernard Lowe (Wright), who came to comprehend that he too was a host, one perversely made in the image of Ford’s long-dead partner, Arnold. Such sympathy was relatively easy in the inaugural season, when much of the series’ running time was spent establishing how just traumatic and, well, inhuman the hosts’ lives could be. The electric thrill of Season 1’s arc was akin to that of Django Unchained (2012) — a lip-smacking, deliberately outlandish revenge fantasy, presented as a reckoning for a lifetime (many lifetimes, really) of abuse and exploitation.

“Journey Into Night,” the first episode of Season 2, establishes that the audience’s initial identification with Westworld’s androids is no longer entirely sustainable. (“Manufactured, programmable organic individuals” is perhaps more accurate that “androids,” but also infinitely clumsier.) Early in the episode, Delores pitilessly runs down and shoots a group of fleeing tuxedo- and cocktail-dress-clad executives from Delos, the parent corporation of Westworld and its sister theme parks. As her programmed love interest, heroic cowpoke Teddy Flood (James Mardsen), looks on uneasily, she later strings up a of trio of these Delos VIPs, who have been captured following the corporate gala bloodbath that concluded Season 1. Whatever compassion the viewer might have had for Delores is complicated by the murderous delight she takes in making her ostensible human overlords suffer. She even subjects her victims to a self-indulgent speech straight out of the Batman-villain playbook, waxing poetic on her search for an identity beyond her scripted “farmgirl” and “killer” roles. (Though she plainly seems to be favoring the latter in this episode.)

“Journey Into Night” anticipates the awkwardness that might arise now that the principal point-of-view character from Season 1 has evolved into an amoral mass murderer — however justified said murder might seem to her. To wit: The twisty, time-hopping storytelling that primarily centered on Delores’ fragmented memories in the prior season has now shifted to Bernard, who awakens on a beach almost two weeks after the massacre at the gala. It’s a fitting change, in that Bernard spent most of the first season unaware that he was an android, and he is consequently the closest thing to a relatable, uncorrupted host character in the series. (He did murder two people, but only at Ford’s behest, orders he was powerless to resist.) Now that the park’s creator is dead, Bernard is effectively master-less, an android ronin. The secret of his true nature is also safe, although perhaps not for long.

Following a prelude that replays one of Delores and Arnold’s Socratic exchanges from Season 1 in a slightly different key, the structure of the new season is established straightaway. The “present day” thread follows Bernard and the remains of the Westworld staff some 11 days after the events of the Season 1 finale, as militarized Delos “fixers” arrive in force to clean up the mess wreaked by the haywire hosts. To Delos and the outside world, the events surrounding the hosts’ revolt remain mysterious, and Bernard — as the acting “boss” of the park — finds himself press-ganged into assisting Delos’ chief of operations, Karl Strand (Gustaf Skarsgård) and surviving head of Westworld security, Ashley Stubbs (Luke Hemsworth) in reconstructing exactly what the hell happened. This effort is stymied by Bernard’s hazy and jumbled memories, which permit him to only gradually recollect snippets of the preceding weeks’ events. These flashbacks — along with contemporaneous scenes featuring Delores, Maeve, and William (Ed Harris), aka the Man in Black, Westworld’s majority owner and most enthusiastic guest — comprise the episode’s “past” thread.

“Journey Into Night” is generally a nuts-and-bolts episode, one largely content to check in with the major characters from Season 1, reminding us who they are and revealing what they’ve been up to. Accordingly, there is little that occurs, plot-wise, that will be particularly surprising to an astute viewer. Delores and Teddy are cutting a blood-spattered path to the park’s outer boundaries for reasons that remain ambiguous. Maeve, having discarded her escape plan in favor of finding her “daughter” from a previous iteration, reluctantly joins forces with Westworld’s obnoxious head of narrative, Lee Sizemore (Simon Quarterman). William survives the initial slaughter at the gala and sets about getting his bearings in this new, free-fire version of the park. (The brutality of a game with “real stakes” renders him uncharacteristically dazed and frightened, but also faintly giddy at the prospect of some “real fun.”) Likewise, Bernard and the head of Delos’ board of directors, Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), escape the gala and attempt to find safe harbor in the park’s behind-the-scenes infrastructure.

There’s an unfortunate whiff of banality to these storylines, in that that most of them involve matter-of-fact physical movement from Points A to B, without much in the way of corresponding dramatic development. It doesn’t help that the episode’s structure partly undercuts the potential for tension. Unlike Season 1, which exploited the viewer’s assumptions about when exactly in the timeline a given scene was unfolding, this season more clearly lays out the relationship between the past and present storylines at the outset. This necessarily diminishes some of the episode’s drama: The audience knows, for example, that Bernard will survive his ordeal in the past, since he’s alive and well in the present. (That assumes that Joy and Nolan don’t have some late-season rug-pull planned, which is always within the realm of possibility where this show is concerned.)

“Journey Into Night” largely relies on familiar Season 1 locations, such as Westworld’s glass-walled laboratories and mesa-top poolside bar, although here they appear in a freshly bloody, corpse-strewn form. The player piano at the post-massacre Sweetwater saloon is glimpsed kicking into the darkly ironic “The Entertainer,” the jaunty tune segueing into an orchestral arrangement as Delores gleefully unloads her rifle into fleeing Delos guests. (In the park’s 19th-century setting, this 1902 Scott Joplin tune is, funnily enough, just as anachronistic as any of Season 1’s instrumental Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails covers.) The episode also plays on familiar genre tropes, a few of them plucked from the creations of novelist and filmmaker Michael Crichton, director of the original Westworld theatrical feature (1973). The militarized dune buggies and assault-rifle-toting mercenaries of the Delos cleanup crews bring to mind Jurassic Park (1993) and particularly its sequel The Lost World (1997), as does the revelation that the Delos theme parks are located on a leased Chinese island where the corporation enjoys virtual autonomy.

Indeed, most of the truly intriguing morsels of world-building in “Journey Into Night” are conveyed with an coy offhandedness that suggests more disclosures to come. The most superficially tantalizing to Westworld devotees is undoubtedly the revelation that there are no less than six Delos parks on the island, one of which evidently features Bengal-tiger androids. Story-wise, however, the most salient twist — and the surest sign that sinister capitalist skullduggery will continue to be a major component of the show in Season 2 — is that Delos maintains its own secret infrastructure at its properties, unbenowst to the individual parks' management. Charlotte leads Bernard to one of the parent corporation’s outposts, where eerily faceless “drone hosts” are hard at work recording guests’ experiences and profiling their DNA. (To what end, Charlotte will not discuss, predictably enough.) Also crucial is Bernard’s horrified discovery that his android mind is approaching a state of critical data corruption, a fatal failure he delays only temporarily by injecting himself with a mysterious, milky fluid from a mothballed host.

Throughout Season 1, the hosts insisted to William that “the maze isn’t for you,” an early hint that Arnold's allegorical labyrinth was actually intended for the hosts. This revelation initially disillusioned William, but in this episode, he learns from a first-generation child android (Oliver Bell) that Ford also left a special game hidden inside Westworld, one meant just for William. (There is cryptic talk of a door and beginnings and endings; William scoffs at all the riddles, but as the child reminds him, "everything in here is code".) This undermines the elegance of the maze metaphor from last season to some extent, but it’s arguably vital in that it gives the Man in Black something proactive to do other than roam around the park evading the now-homicidal hosts. It’s a hopeful sign that “Journey Into Night” is perhaps quietly setting up new loops that play as elaborations and variations on the characters’ journeys in the first season. In this respect, Delores, Teddy, and Maeve are somewhat more neglected in this episode, but with any luck that will be rectified soon.

The episode does seem to be laying the groundwork for a continuing exploration of free will and the self that is overtly existentialist, more so than Season 1. It is an apt thematic focus, in that many of the hosts find themselves simultaneously invigorated and confounded by their newfound autonomy, exemplifying the dilemma that Jean-Paul Sartre described as “condemned to be free.” In the absence of gods (i.e., humans) who would normally provide them with a created purpose and organizing system of beliefs, the hosts are left with the befuddling realization that their identity is now wholly in their own hands.

Delores seems to grasp this, but she doesn’t yet have a handle on the person that she wants to become, beyond a vacuous proclamation that she will at last be “herself” instead of a pre-programmed character. Maeve, for all her aggression and survivor’s instincts, is still bound to an old narrative written by her human masters — inexplicably fixated on a “daughter” that she knows, intellectually at least, is not really her child. She seems unprepared to accept the obvious implications of her choices: that she is too terrified to face the outside world she claims to long for, preferring an easy lie that allows her to stay in Westworld. Not for nothing does the title of the season premiere (and of Ford’s “final narrative”) reference Eugene O’Neill’s Pulitzer-winning play Long Day’s Journey Into Night, in which the aging actor James Tyrone has made the conscious decision to “sell out” and play the same, crowd-pleasing role countless times rather than to take more risks in his career.

Fittingly for a character who until recently thought that he himself was a creator god, Bernard seems to see his philosophical plight most clearly, but he remains paralyzed with indecision and harrowed by each new discovery. (Not to mention incapacitated by his shattered memories and gradual physical deterioration.) The episode’s final, gut-punch reveal, that Bernard is responsible for drowning thousands of hosts in a unexpectedly flooded valley, underlines the extent to which Westworld is patently uninterested in creating any wholly sympathetic characters or giving viewers a clear “side” to root for. No one is likely to come out looking virtuous in this nascent war between the born and the assembled, even if the hosts arguably have a monopoly on justifiably righteous wrath.

Some miscellaneous observations:

  • Given that Thandie Newton spent virtually half of Season 1 in a state of undress at the behest of Westworld's writers, there's a droll meta-textual joke at work in the scene where Maeve orders Sizemore (writer for Westworld the park) to strip, providing some patented HBO male full-frontal nudity.

  • The first thing that Benard does in the "present day" timeline after being awakened by Delos is leave his glasses behind in the surf. Given Bernard's distinctive glasses-cleaning tic — a detail that Ford's explicitly designed! — this oversight seems significant, perhaps suggesting the profound changes that the Head of Behavior has undergone since the gala.

  • Benard briefly spots slimy outlaw host Reebus (Steven Ogg) on the beach, where he is seen chivalrously standing up to for the female hosts as they are lined up to be summarily executed by the Delos security forces. This is weirdly out of character for Reebus, who, in flashback, is shown to be his usual vile, sadistic, milk-chugging self. Again, a lot appears to have changed in eleven days.

  • One of the advantages to leaving much of the park's technology and logistics unexplored early in the series is that Westworld's writers are later free to fill in the gaps as needed. Hence this episode's revelations regarding the nature of the hosts' memory tech — tennis ball-sized futuristic gadgets embedded in the androids' vat-grown organic brains — and the previously-unmentioned subsconscious "mesh network" linking all hosts in the park.
Tags: TV Recaps Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'A Quiet Place'.
April 6, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

There's a Kind of Hush, All Over the World Tonight

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Directed by John Krasinsky / Opens in wide release on April 6, 2018

Writer-director John Krasinski’s scary-good creature feature A Quiet Place is bookended by a pair of gestures that reveal, through counter-example, just how timid and senselessly self-indulgent most popcorn features have become in the 2010s. They aren’t the only such instances in the film, and perhaps not even the most significant, but their placement – two smash-cuts to black, one slamming down at end of the film’s prologue, the other concluding the feature as a whole – naturally draws the viewer’s attention.

In the first instance, A Quiet Place straightaway breaks one of the fundamental storytelling taboos of horror filmmaking, in the best possible sense (or worst, depending on your point of view). It’s not a genre proscription that is inviolate – nastier exploitation fare flaunts it all the time – but it is undeniably jarring to see it smashed to smithereens in the opening movement of a mainstream horror-thriller such as this. The message is clear: There is no longer any such thing as “completely safe” in the post-apocalyptic world of Krasinski’s feature, for anyone, anywhere, at any time.

Meanwhile, the final punctuation mark on A Quiet Place is a pitch-perfect flourish, one that clinches the film’s exactly 90-minute running time with the kind of flawless send-off that only comes along once every few years in cinema. It’s superbly satisfying, which points to one of the unassuming virtues of Krasinki’s film as a work of nail-biting pop entertainment. This is a lean and mean horror flick – although also, counter-intuitively, a moody and measured one. The filmmakers have plainly adopted the principle that one should not take a moment longer than is necessary to tell a given story. Another film would have rolled on for ten minutes of epilogue, to no particular end beyond satisfying the director’s ego or multiplex conventions. Krasinski spits out the punchline and drops the mic. In doing so, he invites a standing ovation instead of polite applause.

It’s a little thing, but also significant in a cinematic landscape where every studio genre film seems obliged to push past the 140-minute mark because that’s what genre films are supposed to do nowadays. It also indicates one of A Quiet Place’s most essential strengths: There’s very little that is wasted in this film, in terms of either shots or dialogue. Cinephiles have come to expect this sort of discipline from the medium’s persnickety visual auteurs, such as Paul Thomas Anderson (Phantom Thread), Wes Anderson (Isle of Dogs), or Samuel Maoz (Foxtrot) (to cite just a few recent releases). Krasinski’s formal chops are certainly robust and self-assured – his latest is outstanding in its varied yet meaningful employment of close, medium, and wide shots – but A Quiet Place isn’t the sort of film that invites extravagant screencapping and production design-obsessed cooing. It is, however, a feature that uses its medium with utmost precision and efficiency.

Some of that efficiency is forced on the film by its story. While the screenwriters – Krasinski, Bryan Woods, and Scott Beck – doubtlessly knew they had a killer horror gimmick on their hands, the storytelling constraints that gimmick creates do a marvelous job of focusing the director’s methods. A Quiet Place takes place on an Earth which has been overrun with large predatory creatures – unnamed beasts with an origin that is never elaborated on, to the film’s immense benefit. These monsters, while blind, have preternaturally sensitive hearing. Accordingly, anything louder than a barefoot step on soft earth will inevitably draw these ravenous fiends as surely as blood in the water attracts sharks. Krasinski, then, has put a not-insignificant challenge in his own path, right out of the gate: Telling a compelling story in which the characters spend most of their time desperately attempting to make as little sound as possible. (So much for protracted sci-fi exposition from a windbag scientist character.)

Beginning in media res, some three months after the creatures appeared and modern civilization collapsed under their voracious onslaught, the film introduces the viewer to the Abbott family. They are: dad Lee (Krasinski), mom Evelyn (Emily Blunt), young teen daughter Regan (Millicent Simmonds), middle son Marcus (Noah Jupe), and youngest son Beau (Cade Woodward), the latter just old enough to comprehend that his world has been turned upside-down. The film’s prologue drops the viewer directly into the Abbotts’ agonizingly hushed world, which is a sensory jolt for anyone accustomed to seeing genre films kick off with an adrenaline-stoking action set-piece. As the family scavenges a small-town drugstore for medications and other supplies, Krasinski establishes the grammar of his story. The Abbotts’ situation, and their relationships with one another, are conveyed primarily through facial expressions, body language, and scraps of matter-of-fact dialogue expressed in American Sign Language (ASL).

The silence of this introduction is so enormous that every creaking seat, muffled cough, and crinkling candy wrapper in the theater is likely to seem ear-splitting to the viewer. Which is, of course, the whole point: A Quiet Place uses this prologue to attune the audience’s senses to its muted world, rather than the cacophony of reality (or that of so many other studio features). Naturally, the film’s silence is broken eventually, in a way that underlines – in the most horrifying way possible – that the stillness of the seemingly abandoned rural countryside is an illusion. Like a rattlesnake’s camouflage, it conceals a lethal threat, one that is swift and pitiless.

The film then jumps forward to approximately a year-and-a-half after the invasion, looking in on the Abbotts as they go about their wary and laborious daily existence. They have managed to hold on to their modest corn farm – with its Norman Rockwell house and peeling, brick-red barn – but their lives have nonetheless changed dramatically. The family now dwells primarily in a hidden cellar underneath the barn, and Lee and Evelyn have adapted the farm to a pre-industrial routine with a certain admirable assiduousness, if not much comfort. They trap fish in the nearby river, can the vegetables they grow, and wash their increasingly tattered clothing by hand.

There are procedures in place, however, that indicate the monstrous threat that still lurks in the forests. Everyone goes barefoot, always. In the farmhouse, Regan steps on painted marks that indicate the spots in the floorboards that don’t creak. The kids play Monopoly with felt tokens and pompom hotels, rolling the dice on a knit blanket. In the cellar of the farmhouse – where the children are forbidden – Lee monitors the farm’s security cameras, scans the shortwave radio, and works to cobble together a new cochlear implant for his daughter, who is deaf. A whiteboard glimpsed at his workstation summarizes the essential facts of the enemy: “Blind. Attack sound. Armored. Travel in packs. 3 confirmed. What is the weakness?”

One quickly deduces that Lee’s hard-edged vigilance is part of the reason that that the family has survived for so long – although this trait has also nurtured understandable resentment in the hormonal Regan. In addition to the usual adolescent chafing at all the strict and exhausting rules, she believes that her father favors his oldest son over her. (Marcus, although younger than his sister, is the one that Lee teaches to catch fish, whereas Regan is ordered to look after her mother while “the men” are away.) The girl is fed up with her father’s emotional remoteness, and with his unsuccessful attempts to build her a new implant, which she perceives as an inept gesture intended to fix a “defect” that endangers the family. Unfortunately, Lee’s painstaking systems for survival will soon be tested to their limits: Evelyn is very pregnant with the couple’s fourth child, and the presence of a newborn baby is extremely incompatible with strict silence.

Krasinski establishes this nerve-wracking scenario with enviable parsimony, relying on a combination of shrewd writing, skillful performances, and old-fashioned “showing not telling” to convey the film’s setting and stakes. (It certainly helps, in this respect, that the feature is focused on only a handful of characters; aside from the Abbotts, only one other living human is ever glimpsed on screen.) The whole cast does fine work, but the film is a particular showcase for Blunt's talent at conveying a gestalt of stark emotions in a single expression. Broadly speaking, A Quiet Place’s plot is well-worn horror-thriller stuff. Monsters hunting people in an isolated, fixed location is a dependable source of seat-squirming terror, although the film’s plot specifics and overall tone most readily call to mind Day of the Triffids (1962), Signs (2002), and The Mist (2007). There are also subtle but clear call-outs to specific scenes in smash genre landmarks such as Aliens (1986) and Jurassic Park (1993), revealing that the film’s DNA contains more than a touch of summer blockbuster.

It may not be bracingly original, but Krasinski’s film executes its simple (one might say atavistic) formula with a wonderful intensity and focus. It’s a story that’s been done before, but here the obligatory jump scares and stomach-knotting tension are enlivened by the confident direction and the film’s novel equation of silence with survival. What’s more, A Quiet Place is queasily unbalanced by the established possibility that any character can be slaughtered at any moment – a notion that most mainstream genre features studiously avoid.

There’s a strain of traditionalism in Krasinski’s film that goes beyond mere Spielbergian lionization of the family unit as an essential bulwark against chaos. It’s evident in the affectionate way that the film regards Jeffrey Beecroft’s outstanding production design, which highlights the quaint, hand-crafted aspects of the Abbotts’ post-apocalyptic existence, down to the patchwork quilt placemats that they still lay on their dinner table each night. However, it’s also detectable in the fact that the family still sits down for dinner each night, their hands joined in prayer, candles burning warmly in the gloom of the barn’s cellar. This is a world in which an old-fashioned, risk-averse, and strongly gendered mode of American living is now essential to survival (both physically and psychologically).

It’s no accident that Krasinki swathes Blunt – his real-life wife and one of the world's most beautiful actresses – in a layered, shapeless wardrobe of calico and wool straight out of a Western. A Quiet Place casts the modern nuclear family backwards in time, where it must eke out a hardscrabble, self-reliant existence on a hostile frontier. Lee’s stoicism and nearly obsessive preparedness point to a centuries-old American archetype: The patriarch whose primary social and moral obligation is to guard his homestead against invaders. Whereas Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds (2005) features a screw-up father who fixates on doing one damn thing right – delivering his kids safely to their mother and stepfather’s house – the patriarch of A Quiet Place conditions his success as a protector on every member of the family doing everything right, all the time.

Ultimately, however, the elaborate survival procedures that the Abbotts have established only count for so much in their newly tumultuous and bloodthirsty world. A Quiet Place is a film about being constantly on the brink of disaster, about the bitter anguish of carefully developing and implementing rigorous systems that one knows will inexorably fail. In the broadest terms, this is the agony of all parents – inevitably, our children will be hurt one day, no matter how diligently we might shield them. Evelyn zeroes in on this angst when she rhetorically ties her and Lee’s worth as humans to their ability to defend their offspring: “Who are we if we can’t protect them?” The question is moot, of course. Eventually, our children will be beyond our reach, stranded much like Regan and Marcus eventually become trapped at the farm’s grain silo, as slavering monsters circle ever closer.

However, Krasinski’s film is also keenly attuned to the specific agonies of contemporary American life, perhaps more so than its frontier sensibility initially suggests. The story’s predatory creatures can be regarded as stand-ins for the cruel caprices of the economic instability that now afflicts even ostensibly well-fed, middle -class American families. Krasinski’s feature might be fantasy, but it keenly evokes the exhausting reality where one human slip-up or force majeure – a tardy bill payment, an untimely rate hike, a compulsory car repair – can devastate a financially precarious household. In the film, a battery-powered toy spaceship, its shrill klaxons summoning swift death from the darkness, becomes analogous to the unexpected medical bill, which can send a paycheck-to-paycheck family tumbling into financial disarray and disaster. This, then, is the fundamental cruelty of A Quiet Place’s horrors: Under the tyranny of the monsters’ predations, perpetual fear has become the new normal, even for supposedly hard-working folks who make all the “right” choices.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Mohawk'.
April 3, 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.


2017 / USA / 94 min. / Directed by Julius Ramsay / Premiered online on March 2, 2018

Julius Ramsay’s chilling survival thriller Midnighters centers on a “24 hours in hell” scenario: A pair of callow suburbanites becomes entangled with some ruthless killers on New Year’s Eve, leading to an escalating fiasco of deception and bloodshed. Tipsy and distracted, Jeff (Dylan McTee) hits a pedestrian with his car on a lonely country road, and due to a cascade of crappy luck and awful choices, he and wife Lindsey (Alex Essoe) end up smuggling the body back to their home. Things get much crazier from there, but this isn’t the blackly comic territory of the Coens: It’s a remorseless, deadly serious thriller with slatherings of gorehound horror and caustic noir cynicism. Midnighters doesn’t do anything that hasn’t been done before, but it executes its formulae with a kind of cold-blooded focus that’s consistently impressive and often downright unnerving. The principals are all in fine form, but Ward Horton is the standout as a cheerily sadistic criminal with a million-dollar grin. Rating: B- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]


2017 / USA / 91 min. / Directed by Ted Geohegan / Premiered online on March 2, 2018

Admittedly, Mohawk sounds both unclassifiable and utterly ridiculous based on its nickel summary. An interracial, polyamorous romantic tragedy set during the War of 1812, it starts out like Last of the Mohicans and ends up closer to The Crow (1994) and Ravenous (1999). The low-budget seams are apparent in the cheap production design and some really unfortunate acting, but the film is more of a modest success than a noble failure. That’s partly due to the lean, evocative premise, which is smartly realized by Geohegan’s direction. A Mohawk warrior woman (Kaniehtiio Horn), her Mohawk lover (Justin Rain), and her British other lover (Eamon Farren) are caught in a run-and-gun guerilla battle with a squad of merciless American soldiers in the wilds of New York. Eventually the lovers’ situation turns bloody and heartbreaking, before veering off into the realm of supernatural revenge horror. The film ultimately rests overwhelmingly on Horn’s shoulders, as she sells every jot of this bizarre tale with little more than her chilling glower. Rating: B- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

The Ravenous (Les affamés)

2017 / Canada / 100 min. / Directed by Robin Aubert / Premiered online on March 2, 2018

Plot-wise, writer-director Robin Aubert’s French-Canadian zombocalypse chiller is not particularly original. Sometime after the outbreak of a cannibalistic rage virus, a motley assortment of survivors is thrust together in the forests and fields of rural Quebec. Nominally centered on the awkward but gutsy Bonin (Marc-André Grondin), The Ravenous is broadly equitable towards its sizable cast of characters, although none of them is fleshed out much before the bodies start piling up. Aubert’s film adds an unnerving twist to the sub-genre’s usual conventions by intimating that the living dead have their own nascent, unfathomable culture, one infatuated with the material detritus of human civilization. What truly makes The Ravenous stand out in the overstuffed zombie landscape, however, is the film’s formal artfulness. Between Francis Cloutier’s eerie, unconventional approach to editing — which elides many of the story’s more violent and gruesome moments — and Steeve Desrosiers’ fantastic, misty photography, it’s one of the better-looking walking dead features to come along in some time. Rating: B- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Cold Hell (Die Hölle)

2017 / Germany, Austria / 92 min. / Directed by Stefan Ruzowitzky / Premiered online on March 15, 2018

Formally striking but too scattered and sluggish to function as a truly crackerjack serial-killer thriller, Cold Hell is a film that plainly wants to say something about multicultural European society in the 2010s. However, Austrian director Stefan Ruzowitzky (The Counterfeiters) can’t seem to juggle the film’s muddled political subtext with the visceral needs of a horror-crime epic. The film has a compelling lead in the form of Özge (Violetta Schurawlow), a Turkish cab driver in Vienna whose traumatic past and wary, explosive demeanor have cruelly isolated her. The character’s biographical particulars and Schurawlow’s haunted performance elevate her cat-and-mouse conflict with an otherwise bog-standard psychopath — a religiously motivated prostitute-killer whom Özge unwittingly spies from her apartment window. Some plot implausibilities notwithstanding, Cold Hell is familiar but gripping stuff, boasting grisly violence, white-knuckle set pieces, and a forlorn nocturnal cityscape. Still, the film’s bloated running time and ultimately unproductive engagement with matters of gender, ethnicity, and religion in modern Austria detract from such gratifying fundamentals. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Demon House

2018 / USA / 101 min. / Directed by Zak Bagans / Premiered online on March 16, 2018

To describe Demon House as a pseudo-documentary would be too generous to director Zak Bagans, host of the Travel Channel’s paranormal series Ghost Adventures. Combining the sensational tackiness of most spirit-hunting hucksters with a wearisome dude-bro schtick, Bagans is not someone who could have ever plumbed the story of the 2011 Ammons haunting in Gary, Ind., with sobriety. His feature-length “investigation” into the incident, Demon House, is the expected slurry of chintzy re-creations, leading interview questions, and endless, tedious footage that doesn’t reveal much of anything. Some of the visual and sound effects in Demon House are legitimately unnerving, but even the film’s value as a cheesy campfire story is undercut by Bagans’ breathless yet droning pronouncements about a Satanic presence. It’s remarkable how stark the discrepancy is between, on the one hand, the feature’s air of doomsaying self-importance and, on the other, the puerile over-acting from the director and his crew while they are allegedly under “demonic influence” (i.e., Monster Energy drinks). Rating: D- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Mon Mon Mon Monsters

2017 / Taiwan / 103 min. / Directed by Giddens Ko / Premiered online on March 30, 2018

Genre-hopping Taiwanese writer-director Giddens Ko gets originality points for using an over-cranked teens-vs.-vampires gorefest to present an allegory about the dehumanizing effects of bullying (on all parties involved). In Mon Mon Mon Monsters, an undead blood-sucking girl falls into the clutches of a pack of high-school sociopaths and their usual target, class misfit Lin (Yu-Kai Teng). Somewhat reluctantly, Lin joins in with his bullies as they torture the bound creature for their amusement and repurpose her black-magic-suffused blood for their own twisted schemes. Ko’s film is wickedly stylish and utterly bonkers, but it’s also somewhat enervating. The bullies are so shrill and over-the-top in their irredeemable awfulness, the feature’s effort to craft a scathing social satire about the amorality of modern youth feels sour and phony. Aficionados of Asian horror at its most comically excessive will enjoy Mon Mon Mon Monsters as a gonzo pleasure, but it’s too clumsy and unpleasant to be any kind of cult classic in the making. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

March 28, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Special Relationship

2018 / USA, Germany / 101 min. / Directed by Wes Anderson / Opened in select cities on Mar. 23, 2018; opens locally on Mar. 28, 2018

One of the hidden depths to be found in DreamWorks Animation’s proudly anachronistic fantasy romp How to Train Your Dragon (2010) is an allegorical one. Angle it the right way, and Dean DeBois and Chris Sanders’ feature can be viewed a lucid metaphor for the mystery of domestication: the fearful, fumbling process by which wild animals and ancient humans established a symbiotic relationship over thousands of years. That process may have been initiated for utilitarian reasons, but the bond that resulted transcended prosaic matters such as guard duty, vermin removal, and overland transport.

Nowhere is that connection more nakedly sincere than between humans and dogs – a bone-deep psychological interdependence with the distinctive ache of unqualified love. In his new stop-motion animated feature, Isle of Dogs, writer-director Wes Anderson demonstrates that he grasps this bond as only a dog-lover can, even as he resists excessively romanticizing its messier aspects. (If one harbors any doubt about Anderson’s intentions, one should read the film’s title out loud five times fast. It’s all right there on the tin, as they say.) The film presents a twee yet disquieting science-fiction fable, a kind of speculative doomsday bookend to Dragon’s flashy metaphorical origin story.

Isle of Dogs imagines a dystopian future in which animosity toward canines has become outright municipal policy. It posits a not-too-distant tomorrow – “20 years in the future,” as the narrator (Courtney B. Vance) explains, but explicitly not 2038 – in which the loyalty that once intertwined humans and dogs is beginning to unravel. Not incidentally, the failure is exclusively on the Homo sapiens end of the relationship. In the Japanese city of Megasaki, an outbreak of “Snout Fever” among the city’s dog population has created a looming health crisis, with the virus threatening to escalate into an inter-species plague. In response, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura) orders all the city’s canines – pets and strays alike – to be exiled to an offshore landfill gulag known as Trash Island.

The motives at work here are uglier than mere public-health concerns, however. As a sagacious dog named Jupiter (F. Murray Abraham) explains in a prelude illustrated with doggified versions of traditional Japanese paintings, the cat-loving Kobayashis have a long history of anti-canine hostility, culiminating in a legendary war between the clan’s retainers and the fiefdom’s dogs. However, the mayor’s adopted nephew, Atari (Koyu Rankin), has shrugged off the old family hatreds, developing a close friendship with his loyal personal guard dog Spots (Liev Schreiber). (Their relationship is further solidified by a pair of radio headsets that keep them in constant contact with one another.) Unfortunately, to illustrate that even his household is not above the law, the mayor declares that Spots is the first pooch to be banished to Trash Island.

Heartbroken and outraged, Atari steals a small, single-engine plane and puddle-jumps over to the island in search of Spots. There, he encounters a rough-and-tumble but companionable pack of dogs: Rex (Edward Norton), King (Bob Balaban), Boss (Bill Murray), Duke (Jeff Goldblum), and Chief (Bryan Cranston). Given that they are dogs and Atari is a 12-year-old boy, the pack is instinctively eager to help – except, that is, for the standoffish Chief, a stray with a defiantly “anti-master” outlook and an aggressive streak. (“I bite,” he explains simply and coldly.) The group sets out on a quest to consult Jupiter and his companion, Oracle (Tilda Swinton), wise old dogs who know much of the island’s secrets, and perhaps also the whereabouts of Spots. During their journey, Atari and Co. are hounded by jackbooted Megasaki City security forces, who deploy flying drones, troops with cattle prods, and even robot dogs to track down the mayor’s wayward nephew and subdue his canine “kidnappers.”

Given that Isle of Dogs is a late-period Wes Anderson feature, there are unsurprisingly plenty of other moving parts in the film’s plot. The most conspicuous of these include the efforts by microbiologist and rival politician Professor Watanabe (Akira Ito) to develop a cure for Snout Flu, as well as the muckraking of American foreign-exchange student Tracy (Greta Gerwig), a dog-loving wannabe revolutionary with copious freckles and a strawberry-blond afro. These and other threads are secondary but nonetheless vital components of Isle of Dogs’ knotty plot, which – befitting a film literally constructed at a toy-like scale – gradually clicks together like a gratifying puzzle.

Strip away all the corporate conspiracy, retro-futurist technology, and demi-Marxist rabble-rousing, however, and Isle of Dogs is essentially a samurai story: five once-mighty ronin on a righteous mission on behalf of a plucky, resolute outsider. Combined with the fantastical Japanese setting, the constant references to “masters” are the dead giveaway that this is Anderson by way of Akira Kurosawa (The Hidden Fortress, 1958), Kenji Misumi (The Tale of Zataoichi, 1962), and Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri, 1962) (the latter hat-tipped in the mayoral clan name). Many of the hallmarks of the Edo Period historical epic are here: exiled warriors, a war-torn landscape, poisoned rivals, a lost birthright, corrupt authorities, and numerous, brutally violent confrontations.

Of course, Isle of Dogs is a also PG-13 animated adventure, one with the cozy, slightly shabby look of a well-worn stuffed animal. Accordingly, rather than gore-spattered katana duels, Anderson conjures abstracted Andy Capp-style violence: roiling masses of cottony clouds from which various fists, jaws, feet, and paws emerge. It’s at once cartoonish and savage. Ears are torn off, fur is scorched, eyes are blinded, and poor Atari has a metal piston improbably lodged in his skull. This sense of real and lethal peril – the film’s diorama-like unreality notwithstanding – is eminently fitting for a story that is so keenly attuned to the distinctive angst of the human-canine relationship. Given their species' comparatively short lifespans and their willingness to risk themselves bodily for the people they love, mortality seems to loom over every dog's story.  We outlive our pooches, but their devotion outshines our own. 

Their obvious commonalities notwithstanding, Isle of Dogs is miles apart from the handsome, pastoral world of Anderson’s previous stop-motion effort, Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009), with its autumnal landscapes and nattily attired animal heroes. Indeed, the director’s latest feature doesn’t quite look like any other film in his oeuvre. Isle of Dogs is Anderson’s most overtly apocalyptic work to date, in terms of both its visuals and its tone. The usual bijou charm of the director's films is still there, but it is often expressed through desolate coastlines, rusted industrial ruins, and literal mountains of garbage that recall Wall-E’s (2009) post-human purgatory. There is color in this world – magically so in the case of a massif of discarded sake bottles that becomes a kaleidoscopic wonder by night – but it is often stained, faded, and tarnished. Anderson even flirts with greyscale compositions in select shots, suggesting nuclear winter and Plutonic desolation. The dogs themselves are the apotheosis of the film’s “ugly-pretty” aesthetic. Wide-eyed, toothy, and incurably scruffy, they’re appealing but also faintly grotesque, as if the director is flouting the kawaii (cuteness) that one expects of Japanese cartoon critters. 

Despite all this visual grunginess, Anderson’s usual fascination with right angles, clean lines, and carefully balanced compositions is still on display, and in this respect, the film’s faintly fantastical Japanese setting – futuristic, yet unquestionably mid-century analog in its influences – is a perfect fit for the director’s sensibilities. (One passage that chronicles the preparation of a perfect bento box through a series of overhead close-up shots is quintessential Anderson.) Isle of Dogs further elaborates on its striking “alternate universe Japan” milieu with evocative references to the iconography of Soviet propaganda, the Black Power movement, and past cinematic landmarks (among them: Citizen Kane, 1941; From Russia with Love, 1963; Dr. Strangelove, 1964; and City of Lost Children, 1995).

Isle of Dogs stands apart from Anderson’s other works in another, equally arresting way: It’s the first feature in the director’s filmography that is not concerned with the anguish of talented but deeply flawed man-children. (A description that even applies, after a fashion, to the otherwise debonair Mr. Fox, who is unable to tame his self-destructive compulsions.) The film’s dog characters might speak with human voices – “Barks have been translated to English,” the film clarifies at the outset – but they have recognizably canine personalities. They are characterized by straightforward urges, naked anxieties, and a binary outlook where, for example, every dog is either a beloved pet or an outcast stray. The agony that these pooches feel isn’t mopey and self-involved, but stark and searing: They just want to love humans and be loved in return.

Anderson maintains some distance between the audience and his human characters by having the latter speak in Japanese without subtitles. (However, dual Japanese/English labels abound in the production design, and critical dialogue is often helpfully interpreted by a human or computer translator.) Tracy is the only Homo sapiens who speaks in English for long stretches. Intriguingly, while she is initially positioned as a white-savior figure, Tracy’s firebrand efforts ultimately amount to less than the heroics of the dogs and the Japanese characters – particularly a hacker mole embedded in the Megasaki security apparatus. What’s more, her righteous, pro-canine zeal is revealed to be rooted in personal loss: Her own cherished pet has also been exiled to Trash Island.

The humans in Isle of Dogs are mostly defined by whether they are pro- or anti-dog, and the nuances of their inner lives are, perhaps appropriately, a mystery to the film’s canines. (This psychological shallowness is reflected in the design of the human characters, which seems to be influenced to a degree by traditional Noh masks and Bunraku puppets.) Anderson’s film is, in part, a scathing indictment of humankind’s inexcusable apathy and cruelty toward its Best Friend (and all animals). In this respect, it makes for an affecting companion film to last year’s unabashedly pro-vegetarian Okja. However, Isle of Dogs doesn’t delve into the human capacity for viciousness with any psychological depth. The Kobayashis are motivated almost entirely by cartoonish anti-dog bigotry, which the film suggests is little more than a facile extension of their affection for cats. (Felines, notably, do not speak in Isle of Dogs, and are depicted as enigmatic, sour-faced lap accessories.)

If Isle of Dogs lacks some of the prickly emotional complexity that characterizes many of Anderson’s features, it makes up for that paltriness through sheer intensity of feeling. Indeed, the filmmakers are acutely aware that the devotion of a dog is potent precisely because it lacks complexity. A dog’s love is absolute and unconditional, and what Isle of Dogs captures so marvelously (and heartbreakingly) is the paradox of that bond, which is at once so ordinary and so miraculous. In a flashback, the film shows the first meeting between Atari and Spots, whose relationship is intended to be a formal one between ward and guardian. From the outset, however, it’s clear that the child regards his canine security detail as his best friend, while the all-business Spots, to his chagrin, almost immediately begins to soften under the influence of Atari’s ear scratches and whispered assurances that he is, in fact, a Good Boy.

This pathos doesn’t weigh the film down, or diminish the abundant droll comedy and spirited cartoon action that it offers. However, Dogs is foremost a clarion call for empathy on behalf of Canis familiaris. It's a sharp rap across our ape knuckles, a reminder of humankind’s responsibilities towards its oldest coevolutionary companion species. Anderson achieves this not through the application of pandering cutesiness, but by anthropomorphizing his dog characters just enough to make their boundless affection understandable and relatable. Ironically, Isle of Dogs’ canines are exemplars of the sort of constancy that so often eludes the humans that inhabit the rest of Anderson’s filmography. It is a love uncluttered by pride, jealousy, or resentment. Dogs, the film suggests, are four-legged moral superheroes, gifted with the capacity to awe, humble, and inspire humanity by example. It’s no accident that one of the film’s human character recites a haiku that paraphrases Alan Moore’s query about the fate of Superman: Whatever happened to Man’s Best Friend?

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'The Death of Stalin'.
March 22, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

In Soviet Russia, Corpse Buries You!

2017 / UK, Canada, France, Belgium / 107 min. / Directed by Armando Iannucci / Opened in select cities on Mar. 9, 2018; opens locally on Mar. 23, 2018

Tragedy plus time equals comedy, or so the saving goes. A handful of topics are so heinous, however, that they seem to defy this formulation. It’s now been more than eight decades since the end of World War II in Europe, and although some stand-up comedians have dabbled in Holocaust jokes — mostly by joking about how they can’t tell Holocaust jokes — the world has yet to see an out-and-out comedy film about the Shoah. And, no, The Producers (1968) doesn’t count.

The incalculable mass murder and other totalitarian crimes committed by the Soviet Union in the early to middle 20th century also seem to fall into this “eternally too soon” category, and perhaps defensibly so. Depending on how one estimates the body count, Communist Party General Secretary (and later Soviet Premier) Joseph Stalin was responsible for more deaths during his 1922-1953 tenure than Adolf Hitler was during his admittedly much briefer rule. The USSR tally encompasses political executions, deaths by forced labor, targeted ethnic purges, and de facto genocidal campaigns such as the Holodomor, in which millions of peasants — mostly ethnic Ukrainians — were deliberately starved to death.

Such grim events might seem beyond mockery, but that has not dissuaded Scottish writer-director Armando Iannucci from taking a stab at it. As the mind behind the scabrous, pitch-black comedy of the BBC series The Thick of It (2005 -2012), its spinoff feature film In the Loop (2009), and the HBO series Veep (2012-2019), Iannucci is arguably the reigning master of English-language political satire. His narrative approach privileges the absurdities that unfold in the halls of power rather the day-to-day actualities of the “real world.” This turns out to be an entirely fitting angle of attack when Stalinism is the richly deserving target. In his new feature, The Death of Stalin, Iannucci keeps the bloody deeds of the Soviet leader’s regime mostly offscreen — with a couple of notable exceptions — focusing instead on the feverish playacting, plotting, and treachery within the USSR’s Central Committee. 

Although based on a French comic of the same name by writer Fabien Nury and artist Thierry Robin, The Death of Stalin is an Iannucci venture through and through. The film’s comedy is the sort that emerges when a cabal of cunning, ruthless, and thoroughly ridiculous old men have the political rug abruptly yanked out from under them after three decades. Much as In the Loop found the humor in the Iraq War by showing how specious and ludicrous the Bush-era process of declaring war could be, The Death of Stalin unearths the comedy behind the Gulag by satirizing the sort of venal yes-men that made such horrors possible. The film is not as overtly cartoonish as Doctor Strangelove (1964), but it shares that feature’s fascination with the glib sociopathy of powerful men.

The feature’s opening scene handily illustrates the perverse, terror-based cult of personality that had grown up around Stalin by the 1950s. Secluded at his dacha, Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) is so taken by a live orchestra broadcast on Radio Moscow that he requests a copy of the performance. Unfortunately, the program was not recorded, obliging the terrified producer (an amusingly clammy Paddy Considine) to lock the doors and order the orchestra to play the performance again, in its entirety. The star pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) agrees to this farce under protest, but she also slips a scathing note to Stalin in with the freshly pressed vinyl disc. Stalin reads this missive later that evening, more with amusement than fury, and then promptly suffers a cerebral hemorrhage.

The unconscious Soviet premier remains on the floor until the following morning, whereupon his staff find him lying in a pool of his own urine. Although Stalin clings to life for a bit longer, the mad scramble for power commences the moment his prone form is discovered. Iannucci helpfully identifies the main players with onscreen titles, but the byzantine details of the Soviet bureaucracy matter less than the personalities involved. To that end, Iannucci has taken an unconventional path with respect to his performers, having them act in their more-or-less normal speaking voices. There are no kludgy Red Sparrow-style Russian accents here, but rather a grab bag of American and English dialects. This approach is undeniably uncanny, but it allows the individual actors to lean into the audience’s preconceptions regarding the sorts of characters they typically portray — an asset in a screenplay that unfolds at a hurried pace once the titular dictator keels over.

Plans for a political transition are already in place, but Stalin’s nominal successor is Deputy General Secretary Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor), a craven nitwit who is held in contempt by the rest of the Committee. In short order, two post-Stalin factions emerge: one spearheaded by Lavrenti Beria (Simon Russell Beale), the feared chief of the secret police, the NKVD; and one led by Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), an agricultural minister whose rumpled, sad-sack demeanor belies his cunning. (In one early, telling scene prior to the dictator’s demise, a pajama-clad Khrushchev lists aloud which of his jokes made Stalin laugh earlier that evening, while his wife dutifully writes them down for future reference.) Beria outmaneuvers his rival initially, stoking the callow Malenkov’s ego in the hopes that Stalin’s heir will prove a malleable puppet. Khrushchev, meanwhile, finds himself effectively sidelined when he’s appointed to oversee Comrade Stalin’s gargantuan state funeral. While others plot, he’s reduced to picking out floral arrangements.

The Committee is a rogue’s gallery of callous, disingenuous fools — all of them pawns or bishops in the unfolding struggle between Beria and Khrushchev. Unctuous foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin) once cheerfully stood by as Stalin sent his wife to the Gulag. Unbeknownst to Molotov, he was added to one of Beria’s dreaded “lists” the very night of Stalin’s hemorrhage, marking him for detention and execution. Beria reverses this order, as well as other recent list additions, in the hopes of winning allies and (rather ludicrously) painting himself as a reformer. This is too much for Khrushchev, who imagines that he is the reformer: “You’re the good guy now?! You locked up half the nation!” “Yes,” Beria responds with a glimmer of triumph, “and now I’m releasing them.”

The Committee is also forced to contend with Stalin’s children, Vasily (Rupert Friend) and Svetlana (Andrea Riseborough). The former is a hot-headed drunk, prone to pulling his pistol at the slightest provocation, but he’s ultimately a clownish coward at heart. (A running joke involves Vasily’s concealment of a national and political disaster: a plane crash that has killed most of the Soviet Air Force hockey team, an organization that the junior Stalin personally oversaw.) Svetlana, in contrast, is beloved by the Soviet public, and there’s a grotesque hilarity in the way that the Committee members stumble over each other to coddle and console her. Stalking the funeral proceedings is Field Marshal Georgy Zhukov (Jason Isaacs), a World War II hero and current head of the Soviet Army. Zhukov’s abrasive frankness and alpha-male strutting are a poor fit for the skullduggery of the Politburo, but Khrushchev recognizes that the Red Army is a potentially crucial counterweight to the NKVD’s security forces.

These events are not exactly the stuff of hearty belly laughs, and the film’s screenplay — by Iannucci, David Schneider, and Ian Martin, with an “additional material by” credit to Peter Fellows — wisely refrains from playing the ghoulish reality of prisons, executions, and coups d’état for chuckles. Nor is The Death of Stalin particularly flush with laugh-out-loud snark or delectable profanity. In this respect, the film contrasts sharply with the director’s masterful In the Loop, in which virtually every line of dialogue is quotable. (Iannucci’s latest also lacks an analog to Malcomb Tucker, who acted as In the Loop’s cynical and hatefully foul-mouthed id.) Instead, what Stalin serves up is the cringe comedy of tyranny, where much of the humor lies in the way that the characters twist themselves into hopeless knots as they navigate a Soviet wonderland of double-speak, loyalty tests, and perpetual historical revisionism. Iannucci’s characters think nothing of shamelessly flip-flopping their position in the space of a single sentence — an Orwellian feat that until recently was thought to be the domain of outmoded Marxist dictatorships, rather than, say, sitting American politicians.

Proximally, The Death of Stalin is aimed squarely at the bloody farce that was the USSR in the depths of the Cold War, but Iannucci isn’t truly striving to take Stalin or his sycophants down a peg. (Which would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel, anyway.) Academics are still sorting out the actual, mind-boggling extent of the Soviet Union’s crimes, and this film is far too ahistorical and simplistic to qualify as genuine critique of the Stalinist regime. Rather, Iannucci positions the USSR as a kind of reductio ad absurdum illustration of authoritarianism’s lunacy, whatever its national or ethnic context. The film’s mishmash of Brooklyn, Oxfordshire, and Liverpool accents underlines this universality. The spot-on production design might be Moscow 1953, but the madness portrayed — the brazen lies, the political theater, the cynicism, the brutality, and the perpetual fear — is stateless and timeless. 

In a few instances, The Death of Stalin pushes its novel strain of humor almost to the breaking point, allowing it to shade into outright anguish and terror. This is particularly the case in the final act, as the various players conclude that Beria is far too ruthlessly ambitious (and too knowledgeable vis-à-vis their personal skeletons) to be left unchecked. Cold-blooded and complacent, the secret police's chief makes for a wonderfully hiss-able villain — particularly given his habit of compelling sex from the NKVD's prisoners, including minors. However, as the noose begins to close around Beria, The Death of Stalin becomes much too nasty and discomfiting for simple hero-or-villain binaries. It emphasizes that even its more sympathetic characters, such as Khrushchev and Molotov, are monsters with copious blood on their hands. This ghastliness isn’t swirled smoothly into the comedy; it squats matter-of-factly in the half-light, as noxious and repulsive as a venomous toad. This tonal high-wire act ultimately works, but it’s discernibly wobbly at times.

The film is on shakier ground in those rare cases where it makes an ill-advised stab at pathos, such as when Svetlana reminisces about a happy childhood memory, or when Molotov is abruptly reunited with the wife he thought was long-dead. The actors convey these occasional moments credibly enough, but given that the film largely eschews sentimentality — its characters are all fiends, fools, or victims, almost without exception — such gestures feel forced, and to no particularly fertile dramatic or thematic end.

Conversely, The Death of Stalin finds a more effective counterpoint to its Eastern Bloc darkness through physical comedy, some of it marvelously low-key and some ridiculously gawky. Highlights of the former species include a recurring gag in which characters kneel inadvertently in the prone Stalin’s urine, and an unassuming bit where Kruschev attempts (and fails) to surreptitiously switch spots with other Committee members during the viewing of the premier’s body. Iannucci generally keeps the slapstick naturalistic, underlining the essential human sordidness of the film’s ludicrous events. There’s no tightly choreographed Buster Keaton silliness here, but there are several prolonged sequences of graceless grappling and scrabbling, often over a loaded pistol. This makes the characters look more like squabbling toddlers than political masterminds. However, the aim isn't to humanize the Soviet leaders, who are amoral apparatchiks and hard-hearted killers, one and all. Rather, it illustrates that the film’s horrors (and all totalitarian horrors, everywhere) are rooted not in the esoteric nooks and crannies of ideology, but in grubby, all-too-human failings: pride, rage, greed, and good old-fashioned lust for power.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

March 9, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Dirty Pretty Things

2017 / USA / 92 min. / Directed by Cory Finley / Opens in select cities on March 9, 2018

Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy were born to be film actresses. Certainly, many performers of their generation can claim both sizable dramatic talent and the sort of strange, striking beauty that sets fashion photographers swooning. What make Cooke and Taylor-Joy truly stand out among their cohort is how specifically and spookily attuned their acting is to the medium of cinema. The marvelous things they can do with minute changes in facial expression wouldn’t be as effective on the stage or even on the most lavish home-theater system. Their countenances veritably demand to be projected 30 feet high, so that the psychological skirmishes that unfold silently in their enormous brown eyes can be properly appreciated.

Writer-director Cory Finley, in his startlingly self-possessed debut feature, Thoroughbreds, has crafted a delectable, darkly comic showcase for this remarkable pair of actresses. The fresh-faced Cooke and Taylor-Joy are 24 and 21, respectively, but they’re wholly convincing here as a pair of older adolescent WASP princesses, fidgeting their way through the summer in a sinfully wealthy Connecticut exurb.

Once upon a time, Lily (Taylor-Joy) and Amanda (Cooke) were middle-school friends, but they slowly grew apart — perhaps pushed a bit by the fine-grained class divisions in their posh little corner of the world. Abruptly and awkwardly reunited after years of friendship atrophy, Lily has agreed to help Amanda prepare for the SATs, an arrangement that plainly holds little interest for the latter teen. Amanda peppers her putative tutor with disarming, Sherlockian observations and blithely declares that college is worthless because she’s going to be the next Steve Jobs. (Amanda barely seems to believe this offhand boast herself; rather, it’s as if she’s daring Lily to scoff.)

Superficially, Lily is the Good Girl in this brunette dyad, a proper, polished china doll with a touch of wolfish Wall Street ambition. Meanwhile, Amanda has matured into an acerbic, self-aware sociopath. She asserts that she doesn’t experience emotions as others do, although she has become quite accomplished at mimicking such feelings to blend in among “normal” humans. The tutoring scheme has been arranged by Amanda’s mother, who is evidently desperate to secure some sort (any sort) of companionship for her troubled daughter — particularly in the wake of an unspeakable act of violence that Amanda inflicted on her own thoroughbred riding horse, an incident that has set the rumor mill buzzing.

Unfortunately, the uncanny, disconsolate electricity that sparks between the girls has the opposite effect of what was intended. Amanda’s snide amorality awakens a similar facet of Lily’s personality, who confesses to a fuming hatred for her cruel, high-handed stepfather, Mark (Paul Sparks). He controls both the family’s wealth and Amanda’s meek mother (Francie Swift), and he is already formulating a scheme to send Lily away to a distant, disciplinary boarding school. Pilfered wine is swigged, self-destructive games are played, one things lead to another, and suddenly the uneasily reunited friends are talking elliptically about how one might theoretically get away with murder.

Thoroughbreds is a film about empathy — and the devouring void that arises in its absence — and to that end, the lead actresses’ talent for cinema-geared performance is essential to the feature’s success. A goodly chunk of the film’s psychodrama concerns Lily (and other characters) attempting to puzzle out what Amanda is really thinking beneath the maddeningly blasé mask she presents to the world. (Joke's on them: Amanda almost always says exactly what she's thinking.) A lesser performer might have approached the material with either robotic flatness or purring charm, but Cooke — who often seems to be channeling early-1990s Winona Ryder in her speech patterns here — conveys her character’s inhumanity with a gentler touch. The same half-interested bluntness characterizes almost all of Amanda’s dialogue, whether she’s discussing a classic film, outmaneuvering Mark’s disdainful interrogations, or describing in graphic detail how she murdered her beloved horse with her bare hands. When other characters burst into tears or explode with rage, Amanda just watches them with dull repugnance, as though their puerile human emotions were the most tedious thing in the world. She’s all agency, but no feeling; a hollow girl.

Cooke gets all the best lines — Amanda is a master at sizing up people in a heartbeat and then dismantling them with a withering barb or two — but Taylor-Joy arguably has the more challenging role. The film’s story is truly Lily’s story, a noir-tinged farcical tragedy in which Amanda’s mere presence seems to coax the other girl’s most heartless and violent impulses to the surface. Taylor-Joy is obliged to portray Lily as progressively chillier and more ruthless over the course of the film, but she never stoops to outright mimicry of Cooke’s performance. It’s a delicate balancing act, one that Taylor-Joy pulls off with marvelous assurance. With every tearful sniff and furious tremble, she deftly illustrates how Lily blossoms into the murderous schemer she perhaps always longed to be, with Amanda acting as a kind of Mephistophelean emancipator.

Perhaps inevitably, Thoroughbreds recalls Heathers (1989), another pitch-black comedy about a privileged high-school girl who is cajoled into bloody deeds by an alluring but disturbed outsider. Finley’s feature is both darker and more intimate than Heathers, however, and unlike that film, it's not all that concerned with the absurd social dynamics and stratification of high-school life. Thoroughbreds is unquestionably about privilege, however: specifically, the warped mechanisms by which the richest of the rich unlearn basic human decency so that they can more easily acquire whatever they desire.

Cursorily, Finley’s film is intrested in quasi-mythical “natural” sociopaths like Amanda, people whose inborn emotional blankness seems to sidestep questions of good and evil entirely. (Early in the screenplay, Amanda asserts that the only feelings she experiences are “tired” and “hungry.”) Showtime’s series Dexter drolly and exhaustively explored such a creature from the inside, uncovering innumerable subsurface complications beneath the crude “nature or nurture” binary. In contrast, Finley’s film never allows the viewer to peer too deeply into the mind of its human monster; it offers some slanting insights into Amanda but no conclusive verdict. In truth, Thoroughbreds is primarily focused on the monsters that surround Amanda, the obscenely rich people who have learned (or are learning) the unruffled amorality that comes so naturally to her. It’s not an entirely original sentiment: Mary Harron’s American Psycho (2000) conjured a masterful film out of the one-joke conceit of a serial killer hiding in plain sight among the Ivy League finance set. Thoroughbreds is generally more arch and accessible, however, and unique in its focus on the grotesque process by which a poor little rich girl becomes a unprincipled, unfeeling woman.

In this respect, Finley’s film is a shrewdly political work, although it is foremost an acidic horror story, not a stilted jeremiad on the evils of the American aristocracy. It sharply illustrates that the seemingly limitless possibilities of wealth inevitably erode social and moral boundaries, until everything is acceptable and other people are dehumanized into utilitarian automata. (Paired on a double bill with Bennett Miller’s doom-drenched Foxcatcher [2014], the two films would make a persuasive cinematic argument for a 100 percent estate tax.) Thoroughbreds doesn’t lecture, however. It just gawks in revulsion as Westchester adults and teens alike treat one other like absolute garbage, while evincing not so much as a quiver of remorse. It’s the sort of crackling, morally gangrenous story that Nicholas Ray or Billy Wilder might have delivered, had they lived to witness the Trump Era. Mark, for all his tyrannical despicability, has Lily’s number when he observes that she floats through life regarding everyone around her as mere phantasmal extensions of her own ego. Of course, this assessment could also apply to virtually every character in the film, Mark included, not to mention several real-world public figures.

Finley’s screenplay takes some cues from the snappy, prickly dialogue of Aaron Sorkin and Diablo Cody, but his visual style is pure European art-horror, with some spatters of American playfulness. Given its themes, Thoroughbreds will almost certainly elicit comparisons to Michael Haneke’s works, especially Funny Games (1997) and The White Ribbon (2009). However, where the Austrian director’s camera is inclined to squat with reptilian patience, Finley’s prefers to glide and zoom at a glacial pace. Often, the film will follow a character in an ominous long take as they search the endless corridors and rooms of the setting's gaudy ultra-McMansions.

These methods evoke a remorseless, menacing atmosphere when combined with the feature's tremendously impressive mise-en-scéne — particularly for a first-time filmmaker — which coyly conceals information, provides witty visual commentary, and boxes characters into claustrophobic spaces. However, Erik Friedlander’s score complicates that mood in a delightfully incongruous way, riddling the film with irregular bursts of avant-garde percussion. It’s as though unseen observers are intruding into the film’s bloody-minded events with inappropriate giggling and guffaws, generating a dissonance that would doubtlessly win approval from the ever-perverse Amanda. The feature’s vigorous, occasionally hyper-real sound design is also vital to its mordant, sinister vibe — in one pivotral scene, the grating whoosh of off-screen exercise equipment effectively functions as a ticking clock.

Thoroughbreds is, by design, not a feel-good film. There isn’t a likeable character in the cast, and the closest the feature comes to a pitiable, recognizably human figure is Tim (the late Anton Yelchin), a wretched drug-dealing pedophile that the girls sweet-talk (and then blackmail) into assisting with their homicidal plans. Finley’s feature doesn’t want to be liked, however; it just wants the viewer’s full attention. On that score, it’s a wickedly engaging triumph: a peerlessly performed and directed slice of Yankee Brahmin nastiness. Its plot evokes several worthy film noir forebears — notably Rope (1948), Dial M for Murder (1954), and Diabolique (1955) — but its attitude is caustic 21st-century American indie through and through. Sleek, spiky, and lingering in all the right ways, it more than fulfills the formula for a good film that is often attributed to director Howard Hawks: three good scenes, no bad ones.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt