March 2, 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 limited 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.

The Cloverfield Paradox

2018 / USA / 102 min. / Directed by Julius Onah / Premiered online on Feb. 4, 2018

While the film’s no-warning Super Bowl Sunday release seems to have succeeded in generating a couple of days of Internet buzz, it’s apparent from the final product why Netflix elected not to hype Julius Onah’s The Cloverfield Paradox for months in advance: It’s a baffling shambles of a film. Setting aside the dubious attempt to retroactively apply the Cloverfield branding – which takes the form of some dreary, ill-fitting scenes set on Earth and one final, gratuitous effects shot – the film’s inexplicable decision to turn a particle-collider doomsday scenario into an Event Horizon (1997) knockoff is utterly misguided. (If there’s one sci-fi horror feature that should never be emulated, it’s Event Horizon.) The cast is ridiculously over-qualified, and there’s a germ of potential in the notion of tangent universes as a source of existential terror, but Paradox feels like a random assortment of indifferently mounted space-thriller and body-horror sequences that have been pulverized into an unintelligible narrative slurry. Rating: D [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

The Ritual

2017 / UK / 94 min. / Directed by David Bruckner / Premiered online on Feb. 9, 2018

The Wicker Man (1973), The Blair Witch Project (1999), and The Descent (2005) are worthy genre touchstones from which to draw, but what makes David Bruckner’s The Ritual so effective has less to do with the way it syncretizes its forerunners than with its moody, harrowing execution of a straightforward premise. During a backpacking trip through the Swedish wilds, four British men lose their way, eventually realizing that they are being stalked by a horrific entity out of pagan legend. Bruckner and Joe Barton’s screenplay provide craven, guilt-wracked protagonist Luke (Rafe Spall) with just enough backstory to lend anguished resonance to the film’s muddling of personal and literal demons. This touch of characterization adds a surreal element to what is essentially a primal monster-in-the-woods scenario. The Ritual adeptly establishes an oppressively doom-rich atmosphere, and then proceeds to pitilessly slash into the viewer’s subconscious with some genuinely chilling, uncanny horror imagery – a particularly estimable feat given the film’s modest effects budget. Rating: B [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Dead Shack

2017 / Canada / 85 min. / Directed by Peter Ricq / Premiered online on Feb. 15, 2018

The primary flaws that bedevil Peter Ricq’s Dead Shack are those that have afflicted many an indie horror-comedy: a reliance on obvious, juvenile humor; shrill, unlikeable characters whose stupidity is played (unsuccessfully) for laughs; and a plot that depends on excessive back-and-forth scrambling between a handful of locations. Despite such problems, a distinctly Canadian sensibility of dopey, gross-out fun manages to rise to the surface of this teens vs. zombies curio. Dead Shack works in part due to the frank pity it exhibits towards its villain – a mentally broken woman who keeps her walking-dead family supplied with the fresh brains of rural neighbors. However, the film’s modest success as a low-budget, late-night diversion is attributable foremost to the cunning approach it employs to turn boring, dim-witted adolescent characters into sympathetic heroes. Namely, portray the self-centered, oblivious adults as the real children – hapless losers who need to be saved from both the zombies and their own regrettable life choices. Rating: C [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]

The Housemaid

2016 / Vietnam, South Korea / 105 min. / Directed by Derek Nguyen / Premiered online on Feb. 16, 2018

It’s possible that the right filmmaker could to turn a metaphorical interrogation of French colonial abuses in Vietnam into a creepy and absorbing ghost story, but The Housemaid illustrates that first-time director Derek Nguyen is not that person. Exhibiting a suitably cynical, pitiless view of romantic colonial myths, the director has good intentions, but that just makes the film’s more fundamental storytelling failures even more acute. The only redeeming aspect of this 105-minute waste of time is Kate Nhung’s persuasive portrayal of heroine Linh, who becomes ensnared in the household of a failing rubber plantation, which may or may not be stalked by a vengeful undead spirit. The Housemaid is the sort of derivative, charm-free haunted-house feature that gives the subgenre a bad name. An aimless exercise in dismal, scattershot PG-13 theatrics, the film builds clunkily towards a climactic reveal that is much more likely to elicit an indifferent grunt than a gasp. Rating: D+ [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

The Lodgers

2017 / Ireland / 92 min. / Directed by Brian O'Malley / Premiered online on Feb. 23, 2018

Bryan O’Malley’s The Lodgers has all the hallmarks that one expects in a respectable gothic chiller. Filmed partly on location at Loftus Hall, a real-world haunted mansion in Ireland, the feature boasts a properly forbidding setting, enhanced by Joe Fallover’s splendidly moldering production design. The film offers up a veritable checklist of Poe- and Brontë-tinged motifs: a raven in a cage, a locked cellar door, creepy family secrets, and some genuinely nightmarish paranormal tableaus. Atmosphere notwithstanding, however, The Lodgers engages in far too much narrative throat-clearing. The redolent threatens to become monotonous as characters shuffle around in circles and O’Malley takes his sweet time portentously spelling out motives and plot points that the viewer can easily deduce for themselves. Most of the film’s characters are drearily shallow, and even the protagonists – doomed fraternal twins Rachel (Charlotte Vega) and Edward (Bill Milner) – often seem more like twee storybook personalities than flesh-and-blood victims of a tragic curse. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

March 1, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Honeypot

2018 / USA / 139 min. / Directed by Francis Lawrence / Opens in wide release on Mar. 2, 2018

Director Francis Lawrence’s agreeably trashy cloak-and-dagger potboiler Red Sparrow feels like a throwback in several ways. Most conspicuously, it takes many of its unabashedly sleazy cues from the erotically charged dramas and thrillers that were a part of Hungarian-American screenwriter Joe Eszterhas’ brand in the 1990s – particularly his brief, prolific glut of features from Basic Instinct (1992) through Jade (1995). Meanwhile, Lawrence’s film is so vehement in its depiction of Russian intelligence agents as figures of pitch-black malice and fanatical nationalism, it feels more like a feature produced (and set) in 1982 rather than 2018. At the same time, Red Sparrow has few of the hallmarks one associates with the glossier, big-budget espionage thrillers of the past three decades or so. There are no fantastical secret-agent gadgets and – except for one singularly brutal and bloody incident – barely any action scenes. Lawrence’s feature is closer to John le Carré than Ian Fleming: a twisty drama where the plot is powered by observation, manipulation, and deception rather than speed-boat chases and the like. (In fact, the film is based on the 2014 debut novel from former CIA agent Jason Matthews.)

This unusual combination of attributes makes Red Sparrow a faintly uncanny experience, one heightened by star Jennifer Lawrence’s shaky Russian accent and the presence of overqualified actors – including Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hands, and Jeremy Irons – in glorified bit roles. It’s a film that takes place in a cinematic reality that is at once ridiculous and grounded, a glamorous, comic-book conception of international espionage that unexpectedly revels in the grubby, often dreary procedural details of real-world intelligence work. It is, if nothing else, an exceedingly novel slice of pop entertainment: a sordid spy story for those who relish the escapist titillation of sex, lies, and digital video, but find the genre’s typical dependence on martial arts and explosions wearying.

At the center of this tale is Dominika Ergorova (Lawrence), prima ballerina with the Bolshoi Ballet and niece to Vanya Egorov (Matthias Schoenaerts), a high-ranking official in Russia’s Foreign Intelligence Service, the SVR. When a debilitating leg injury derails Dominika’s dancing career, she fears that her usefulness to the state – and the financial support that she and her disabled mother (Joely Richardson) rely on – will come to an end. However, Uncle Vanya quickly swoops in and presents the hobbled ballerina with an alternate path: training at the FSB’s “Sparrow School,” where the most unconventional weapons in Russia’s international intelligence arsenal are produced.

The young women (and some men) tapped to become Sparrows are schooled in a few fundamental fieldcraft skills, including surveillance and lock-picking, but their primary mission is of a sexual nature. In short, they are trained to be the state’s whores, sent out into the world to manipulate Mother Russia’s enemies and allies with the currency of desire. Under the tutelage of the school’s nameless Matron (Rampling), Dominika learns to discern the true, hidden needs of her targets, and to modify her seduction strategy accordingly. Not incidentally, the curriculum is also designed to break the Sparrows emotionally, forcing them to sublimate everything – from their personal proclivities to their physical autonomy – in the service of the state. (Fair warning to sexual-assault survivors: Red Sparrow features two rape scenes, both aggravated by the explicit, appalling message that the victim is obliged to “take one for the team.”)

Red Sparrow is at its most deliriously ludicrous in these early Sparrow School sequences, as the seedy world into which Dominika tumbles often feels like a baroque hybrid of a Tom Clancy novel, a Garth Ennis comic, and John Wick’s hyper-real assassin-verse. Justin Haythe’s screenplay is forthright about the monumentally twisted nature of the Sparrow School’s abusive methods, but director Lawrence also excitably depicts every nauseating jot of the carnal indignities forced on the students. The film clearly wants to have its cake and eat it too. It leers as its lead actress sits naked and spread-eagle in front of her fellow Sparrows-in-training, for example, but it also sustains a dizzying awareness that the moment constitutes a wily assertion of power on Dominika’s part. By offering herself up bluntly and publicly to a would-be rapist, she becomes the dominant figure, driving her victory home by mercilessly mocking his impotence before the entire class.

The film’s sexual politics are, simply put, radioactive. Individual filmgoers will likely have differing perspectives on how effectively director Lawrence balances the giddy sleaze with psychological sensitivity. It’s familiar, if uneasy, terrain for viewers who are steeped in Paul Verhoeven’s lusciously warped filmography – particularly his World War II thriller Black Book (2006) and the recent Elle (2016) – although Red Sparrow lacks the distinctive satirical bite that characterizes the Dutch filmmaker’s work. Initially, director Lawrence’s treatment of Dominika’s decidedly unconventional education has an unfortunately glib quality, as though the Sparrow School’s sexual humiliations were not all that different from the physical trials of Army boot camp. This is mitigated to an extent by the film’s later twists, which illustrate that Dominika derived vital lessons from the cruelties she suffered during her schooling – although not the lessons her spymasters likely intended.

Once Dominika emerges from the Sparrow School and is sent out into the wider world of international espionage, her path intersects with that of Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), an idealistic and stupid-fearless CIA agent who has cultivated a highly placed mole within the Russian intelligence apparatus. Nate blew his cover to protect his asset some time back – around the moment that Dominika’s ballet career abruptly ended, as it happens – and he’s since surfaced in Hungary, hoping to re-establish contact with said asset. Uncle Vanya and his masters lay Dominika directly in the American’s path, with orders to seduce Nate and wheedle the identity of the SVR’s mole out of him.

There’s quite a bit of additional, sprawling skullduggery involved in Red Sparrow’s plot – including a thread about a complementary Russian mole in a U.S. senator’s office –  but the meat of the story is the psychological tango between Dominika and Nate. Crucially, the CIA agent and his superiors almost immediately peg Dominika as a SVR honey trap, but Nate continues to cozy up to her, in the somewhat myopic hope that he can flip her into an Agency source. (Nate’s sudden zeal to recruit this “Red Sparrow” has everything to do with her uncle’s placement in the Kremlin, and nothing to do with her smoldering beauty, of course.) The questions that scuttle through the plot are the sort of obsessive, fractal-like doubts that lead to paralyzing paranoia: Does he know? Does she know that he knows? Does he know that she knows that he knows? And so on, down into a morass of toxic mistrust and inexorable betrayal.

The film’s central mystery is one of loyalty: namely, whether Dominika is double-crossing her Russian masters, or triple-crossing the Americans, or somehow quadruple-crossing everyone. She might be the film’s clear anti-heroic protagonist, but she is an enigma by design, her real motives a mystery until the film’s breathless conclusion. Jennifer Lawrence plays her with a perfectly maddening inscrutability, masking the woman’s intentions behind so many layers of black eyeliner and crocodile tears that the viewer is never certain if they’re watching a performance. Director Lawrence often allows glimpses of Dominika in moments of ostensibly frank anguish and terror, but each new plot swerve adds a touch of retroactive ambiguity to such moments. At bottom, Red Sparrow is a Frankenstein story, in which the Russians belatedly realize that they may have created a duplicitous monster that neither they nor anyone else can control.

Francis Lawrence, who previously directed Red Sparrow’s star in three of the four Hunger Games features (2013-2015), delivers his most polished film to date, by a substantial margin. It’s nothing groundbreaking, as spy thrillers go, but Red Sparrow is such a well-oiled, kitschy clockwork of lies, lust, and revenge that to gripe about the familiarity of the underlying raw materials – minders, moles, and Eastern Bloc grime – seems unduly cantankerous. Given the presence of eccentric, perplexing misfires like Constantine (2005) and I Am Legend (2007) in Lawrence’s filmography, it’s encouraging to see the director deliver a snug, serviceable genre exercise with the sort of gaudy, fulsome personality that brings to mind the works of Verhoeven and Brian De Palma.

Although Red Sparrow often rather brazenly indulges in the genre’s hoarier formulae, it does so with a dissolute gusto that borders on the grotesque. Accordingly, the film features not one but several viscerally punishing scenes of torture, ranging from the workmanlike brutality of a baton-and-phonebook beating to the gruesome horror of a SVR interrogator who razors off cellophane-thin slices of epidermis with an electric skin-grafting tool. Between such grisly scenes and the film’s unremitting sexual ickiness, suffice to say that Red Sparrow is nasty stuff, its violence much closer to the bone than the sort that one usually encounters in more spectacle-driven espionage cinema.

For all the film’s unabashed luridness, however, what’s refreshing about director Lawrence’s approach here is how little interest he exhibits in turning his anti-heroine into an action star. Given the endless cavalcade of male secret agents at the multiplex, the occasional appearance of a Salt (2010) or Atomic Blonde (2017) can create an understandable surge of enthusiasm among feminist-minded filmgoers. However, such well-meaning efforts often amount to little more than distaff variations on the same violent fantasy, where every challenge is resolved with fists and firepower.

Notwithstanding Red Sparrow’s exploitation-level fondness for nudity and gore, Dominika has more in common with Le Carré’s owlish MI6 spymaster George Smiley than with James Bond. Hers is a tale of patience and deception rather than traditional derring-do. In the world of Red Sparrow, life and death might hinge on little more than a tingling suspicion during a 1 a.m. rendezvous in Moscow’s Gorky Park, or a stack of archaic 3.5-inch floppy disks in a hidden compartment that lodges open at an inconvenient moment. The dissonance between these delightfully prosaic espionage-thriller elements and Red Sparrow’s enthusiastic R-rated tackiness could easily have been lethal. However, both Lawrences – director and star – steer this strange, seemingly awkward vehicle with remarkable dexterity, delivering a unique and invigorating morsel of escapist entertainment in the process.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

Still from 'Annihilation'.
February 23, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Shimmer Shimmer Ya

2018 / USA / 115 min. / Directed by Alex Garland / Opens in wide release on Feb. 26, 2018

In the past decade, few filmmakers have burst out of the starting gate as strongly as Alex Garland. His remarkable, assured directorial debut, Ex Machina  (2015), signaled that the English novelist (The Beach) and screenwriter (28 Days Later; Never Let Me Go) could tell a nervy, cerebral science-fiction story with images and sound as well as words, exhibiting the kind of polished cinematic eye that typically takes decades to hone. However, the stripped-down elegance of Ex Machina’s plot — two men, one woman, a house, and a battle of wits — is one of the key reasons that Garland’s first feature was so impactful. It was perhaps inevitable, then, that the director’s sophomore film, Annihilation, would seem comparatively ambitious, expansive, and (unfortunately) unfocused.

With his new feature, Garland breaks free from Ex Machina’s tightly circumscribed chamber drama, delving into planet-threatening alien menaces and repellent xenobiological horror. It’s broadly familiar science-fiction territory, descended from Atomic Age tales of terror like Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and The Blob (1958), as well as later, nastier VFX tours de force like The Thing (1982). However, Annihilation plainly has ambitions that are closer to those of mind-bending genre landmarks like 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) and Stalker (1979), where the thriller elements are less crucial than aesthetic verve and philosophical depth. While Garland’s feature never approaches the artistry and profundity exhibited by such films, Annihilation is still a damn fine work of science-fiction cinema, one that steadily improves as its plot gets increasingly weird, unhurried, and abstract. It’s perhaps best approached as a film of images and mood rather than ideas, given that the screenplay’s ideas are haphazardly conveyed and more likely to elicit head-scratching than awe.

Adapted from the award-winning 2014 novel of the same name by Jeff VanderMeer, Garland’s film begins at the end: Looking anxious and haunted, a woman named Lena (Natalie Portman), sits within a medical isolation chamber. As a throng of wide-eyed scientists and military personnel peer at her through the glass walls, she is questioned by an official (Benedict Wong) in a hazmat suit, who wants to know what the hell happened to her and to the other four people on her team. And so Lena explains what in fact happened, through a succession of twisty flashbacks that flit through the recent and less recent past.

An Army veteran turned biology professor, Lena is married to an active-duty soldier, Kane (Oscar Isaac), who often disappears for long stretches on shadowy missions. His most recent assignment results in a 12-month absence with no communication, during which Lena’s efforts to uncover even the most negligible tidbits of information — Is her husband even alive? — are met with pitiless silence from the military. Then one day, Kane strolls into the couple’s home, as though he had just popped out for a gallon of milk and gotten lost along the way. Lena is initially overjoyed, but her husband’s demeanor is unnervingly bizarre: He is dazed and sluggish, and responds to even the simplest queries with dead-eyed rambling. Abruptly, Kane is struck by a seizure, and shortly thereafter both he and Lena are snatched up by government agents.

Lena later awakens in "Area X", a sleek military facility somewhere near the Gulf Coast. A chilly government psychologist named Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) appears and explains the situation — to the extent that any explanation is possible. Beyond the facility’s perimeter is a phenomenon termed the Shimmer, a bubble of iridescent ectoplasm that surrounds … well, no one is certain, exactly. The phenomenon seems to be centered on a lighthouse within a state park, but it has progressively expanded over the course of a couple of years, even as the government has quietly evacuated towns and constructed facilities like Area X to study this bizarre energy field. Several investigative teams have entered the region delimited by the Shimmer, but to date only one person has returned from these excursions: Lena’s husband, who is presently comatose and feebly clinging to life.

Ventress plans to lead the next expedition, which carries a sense of amplified urgency due to the uncomfortable proximity of the ever-growing Shimmer. Her team includes gregarious paramedic Anya (Gina Rodriguez), sharp-eyed geologist Cass (Tuva Novotny), and diffident physicist Josie (Tess Thompson). Lena eventually joins the mission as well, not so much asking for a slot on the team as demanding one, although she conceals her personal connection to Kane from everyone but Ventress. The psychologist relents with a shrug — subtly cajoling Lena into tagging along seems to have been Ventress’ aim all along — and soon the women are suited up, scientific gadgets and assault rifles in hand, to cross into the forbidding unknown of the Shimmer.

What they find beyond the rainbow-hued membrane is essentially a grab bag of science-fiction strangeness. Almost immediately after venturing into the Shimmer, the women seem to lose several days of time — Lena awakens in a tent she doesn’t remember pitching, and an inventory of the group’s supplies reveals nearly a week’s worth of depleted rations. Neither electronic communications nor simple hand compasses appear to function properly, and the women are soon beset by a suffocating, burgeoning sense of anxiety and disorientation. The most conspicuous characteristics of the Shimmer, however, are the flora and fauna that seem to be unaccountably mingled into impossible hybrid organisms. Watercolor-hued flowers from manifold species sprout from the same twisting vines. Enormous, albino alligators with rows of shark-like teeth glide through the wooded swamps. Garish, crazy-quilt patches of mold and lichen cover decrepit buildings, the fungus growing so rapidly it can be observed with the naked eye.

Eventually, the team stumbles on evidence of the previous expedition, the very one from which Kane returned as the sole survivor. What they discover among their predecessors’ effects unsettles the already-spooked women to the core, and in due course these revelations crack their shaky alliance along pre-existing fault lines. Although its visual elements echo a plethora of genre influences — including unexpected touchstones like The Quatermass Xperiment (1955), The Relic (1997), and the Hellboy films (2004 and 2006) — Annihilation generally follows the post-Aliens (1986) creature-feature model for most of its duration. To wit: Notwithstanding their knowledge, experience, and firepower, the women are inexorably picked off one at a time by unclassifiable things lurking in the shadows of the Shimmer's increasingly hallucinatory environment. By the time one of the characters looks at her hands and sees, with revolted disbelief, that the whorls of her fingerprints are moving, it’s apparent that psychological deterioration will also play a role in the group’s dissolution.

Garland’s approach to the film’s more straightforward monster-in the-dark components is gratifyingly polished, replete with sharp jump-scares, buzzing tension, and moments of genuinely shocking gore. (One shrewdly fleeting shot of a face cleaved open by a creature’s fangs is guaranteed to elicit gasps.) The viewer is consistently aware that the characters are enclosed within a bubble, lending even the film’s wide exterior shots a sense of knotted claustrophobia, as though the Shimmer were a surreal shared nightmare — irrational, hermetic, inescapable. The director and the film's cinematographer Rob Hardy, who also lensed Ex Machina, lean a bit too heavily on a dense, blue-and-brown gloom in the nocturnal sequences. They tend to conceal threats by slathering on unsightly murk and blinding lens flare rather than employing light and shadow in a more cunning manner.

The film is much more aesthetically compelling in daylight, when it simply gapes at the florid loveliness of the mutating forests, which glow with the uncanny, nacreous illumination that filters through the Shimmer’s dome. Visually speaking, Annihilation is at its best when it lingers uncomfortably on its most alien sights, such as a windswept beach dotted with trees seemingly carved out of glimmering crystal, or a human corpse that has been horrifically rent asunder by tendrils of fruiting fungus. However, the film also boasts its share of more prosaic but still-striking imagery, harkening back to the exceptional mise-en-scène that Garland and Hardy brought to Ex Machina. (A haunting shot of two clasped hands, captured through the prism of a water glass, is just one of Annihilation’s memorable, more intimate gestures.) The film's score, by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, is a chilling work of heaving electronic thrums and whines, and it does an exceptional job of slithering under the skin. A recurring acoustic guitar motif connected to Lena's more domestic flashbacks almost wears out its welcome ... until the composers reintroduce and unnervingly distort it within the alien context of the Shimmer.

Lamentably, there’s a somewhat formulaic aspect to the film’s long middle stretch, as the characters slowly turn on one another or succumb to one of the Shimmer's gestalt biological horrors, often at the precise junctures one would expect. At times, Annihilation feels more like a finely mounted genre exercise than a story with its own exceptional urgency. Still, Garland seems steadfastly engaged with the familiar beats of the creature-feature form. Another filmmaker might have half-assed their way through all the searching, hiding, running, screaming, and variations on the doomed query, “Did you hear that?” Garland revels in this icy bath of terror, never allowing the film to crack a smile that would disrupt its potent, doom-laden atmosphere.

The screenplay is studded with the sort of ludicrous sci-fi dialogue that would never emerge from a real-world scientist’s lips. (“It’s like these plants are stuck in a continuous mutation!” What?) This is the primary reason why the one-note secondary characters in Lena’s team never feel entirely convincing, as expert field researchers or as flesh-and-blood people. Then again, expendable, one-note characters are the bedrock of a solid science-fiction thriller. To her credit, Leigh gets quite a bit of mileage out of Ventress’ standoffish schtick, constantly ticking between grouchy indifference, dry amusement, and Ahab-stylel zeal. Portman, meanwhile, delivers one her most seamless portrayals since Black Swan (2010). On the page, Lena isn’t exactly a complex, enthralling protagonist, yet Portman fills her Army boots with tremendous steel and deftness, navigating some outlandish sci-fi situations in an unfailingly credible manner.

It’s in Annihilation’s final stretch that the film begins to evolve from mere spine-tingling entertainment into something much bolder, even downright breathtaking. There are signs in the lead-up to its mind-melting conclusion that the film's concerns run deeper than popcorn-flick scares. Of particular note is the way that Garland weaves in snippets of Lena’s married life with Kane, which at first seems joyful but is gradually revealed as quietly malignant. (The most resonant of these scenes is little more than one of those passing, discomfiting moments where one partner silently, despondently tries to intuit what the other is thinking from across the couch.) Garland never quite gets all the film’s would-be thematic fragments to cohere into a robust, intelligible whole, and the film at times suffers from his determination to linger excessively and unnecessarily on pseudo-subplots, e.g., Lena’s affair with an academic colleague. However, the film’s most fully developed theme is right there in the title, and Leigh’s dyspeptic psychologist comes closest to enunciating it: Everyone has a self-destructive compulsion of one form or another, suggesting that some primeval need to obliterate the self is encoded in the human genome. How exactly this jibes with the film's final mysteries is anyone's guess.

By the time the characters reach the lighthouse at the epicenter of the Shimmer, Annihilation has slowly shifted into a mode of dark, painterly surrealism. It would not be an exaggeration to assert that the film’s final 15 minutes or so approach the climactic “Star Gate” sequence of 2001: A Space Odyssey or the ground-breaking “Part 8” of last year’s Twin Peaks: The Return in terms of disaffecting, live-wire strangeness. Sheer sensory experience takes primacy over trivial things like pacing, narrative, and logic. Although largely unfathomable on an initial viewing, this passage is utterly mesmerizing and the best part of Annihilation by an enormous margin. To say more would detract from what is a singular cinematic experience, and such wonders are too few and far between to be diluted by from-the-hip critical description and decoding. Ultimately, Garland himself offers little clarification regarding the film’s climactic events, although he can’t resist punctuating his feature with the sort of confounding, figurative question mark that would feel right at home in a mid-century atomic-monster romp. This gesture is fitting, given Annihilation’s uneasy hybridization of early-’60s B-picture workmanship and late-’60s artistic daring. The former makes for satisfying science fiction, but the latter throws into sharp relief how run-of-the-mill all the ravenous monster business truly is.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

February 15, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

I Dreamed of Africa

2018 / USA / 134 min. / Directed by Ryan Coogler / Opens in wide release on Feb. 16, 2018

The increasingly exasperating irony of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) is that very few of the franchise’s theatrical films — which now number 18 and counting — are particularly cinematic. That is, the series seldom feels like it’s capitalizing on the true potential of the big screen as a medium for flashy, thrilling action and gonzo science-fictional world-building. Considered collectively, the most successful aspects of the MCU features are their charming characters and their deft blend of sincerity and cheekiness. Given the evocative superheroes in the studio’s lineup and limitless possibilities of digital wizardry, it’s a bit puzzling that Marvel has settled on such enjoyable but prosaic attributes as the bedrock of its franchise, rather than the sort of adjectives that once screamed from Silver Age comic covers: AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! ASTONISHING!!! It’s an unforgivable shortcoming that the power-packed Avengers films (2012 and 2015) boast not a single action set piece as inventive and mind-bending as the duo-dimensional alien-bazaar sequence in last year’s flawed but eye-popping Valerian and City of a Thousand Planets.

Occasionally, something genuinely amazing does break through the endless wisecracks, blunt pathos, and entertaining yet unmemorable action sequences that have come to characterize the MCU. Ant-Man (2015) cunningly employed its hero’s elastic size to deliver giddy nano-scale twists on the subgenre’s customary brawls, chases, and escapes. Doctor Strange (2016) envisioned the jaw-dropping mystical duels that would unfold if characters could fragment space, reverse time, and slip into alternate realities. The Guardians of the Galaxy features (2014 and 2017) and last year’s Thor: Ragnarok delivered on the visual promise of Marvel’s “cosmic” stories, giving vivid life to the sort of grand, gaudy, and downright goofy science-fiction settings that wouldn’t seem out of place on a Roger Dean album cover.

Black Panther, the latest feature in the MCU canon, is striking for similar reasons, as it lavishly realizes a world never previously seen in mainstream blockbuster cinema: an Afrofuturist utopia. Viewers of Captain America: Civil War (2016) may recall that the Black Panther is the alter ego of T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), prince of the African nation Wakanda. As succinctly described in the new film’s animated prelude, the history of this fantastical realm has been dramatically shaped by a motherlode of the extraterrestrial metal vibranium, deposited eons ago by a meteoric impact. This substance not only altered the evolution of local flora and fauna but also allowed the native people to develop technology that was leaps and bounds beyond anything else on Earth. Isolated from the outside world behind an illusion of pastoral simplicity, Wakanda has secretly blossomed into the most advanced society on the planet, an African Shangri-La gracefully balanced between traditional tribal culture and bleeding-edge scientific wonders.

The mantle of the Black Panther — a warrior-god figure that is part shamanistic magic and part nanotech super-suit — has been passed from one Wakandan king to the next. Following the demise of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani), during the events of Civil War, T’Challa has returned to Wakanda for his coronation. He stops on the way to dispatch some Nigerian human traffickers and pick up the resourceful Wakandan undercover agent Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), who also happens to be his ex-girlfriend. The fledgling king is welcomed by mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), spiritual mentor Zuri (Forest Whitaker), and sister Shuri (Letitia Wright), an engineering prodigy whose laboratory serves as a kind of Q Branch for the Black Panther.

The new monarch’s ascension to the throne, while an occasion for celebration, is not entirely smooth. The Jabari, a reclusive mountain tribe that has refused to embrace Wakanda’s vibranium-based modernism, utilize the succession as an opportunity to challenge T’Challa for his crown. What’s more, notorious South African arms dealer and wanted murderer Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) has recently resurfaced, allegedly to sell a stolen chunk of the country’s priceless mineral. The possibility of taking down one of Wakanda’s few national enemies presents an irresistible opportunity for T’Challa, Nakia, and the steel-willed Okoye (Danai Gurira), commander of the king’s royal guard, the Dora Milaje. W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya) — scion of Wakanda’s vigilant Border Tribe, loyal friend to T’Challa, and lover to Okoye — is also eager to see Klaue under the Panther’s claws, given that the the arms dealer slew his father. Naturally, complications ensue, albeit from an unexpected angle. Klaue’s crooked crew includes a black American named Erik “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), an ex-Navy SEAL turned criminal mercenary who has a secret connection to Wakanda and a massive, murderous chip on his shoulder. 

Cinephiles and Marvel enthusiasts who had hoped that Black Panther might be the first feature to break the broadly formulaic approach to plotting that has become a MCU calling card will unfortunately be disappointed. Besides being the franchise’s first black filmmaker, Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station, Creed) is unquestionably the Marvel director with the most artistically formidable pre-MCU filmography. However, far from injecting some novelty into Marvel’s cookie-cutter approach to plot, Coogler — who penned the film’s screenplay with Joe Robert Cole — saddles Black Panther with a regrettably pedestrian succession of fights, chases, betrayals, deaths, rescues, and “twists.” It’s all rather dispiritingly predictable. Viewers who have caught any of the previous MCU features — or, indeed, any Hollywood blockbuster in the past 20 years — will likely see every swerve coming from miles away. Which isn’t a Bad Thing per se, but superhero aficionados who crave narrative surprises at this late stage in the genre’s blockbuster reign will need to look elsewhere.

Within the confines of the film’s somewhat prosaic, obvious, and breathless plot, however, Coogler and his cast discover ways to tell a stimulating story about an array of themes, including, but not limited to, race, wealth, tradition, duty, and birthrights. If the “what” of T’Challa’s story is disappointingly standardized according to the MCU template, the “how” and “why” are pricklier and more engaging than the usual Marvel fare. Some of this is attributable to Coogler’s keen attunement to issues of colonialism, nationalism, philanthropy, and global inequality, all of which are touched on in Black Panther. (The film rarely slows down to engage with such matters in a more expansive manner, however; this is a breezy yet overstuffed MCU feature, after all.) Meanwhile, much of the film’s dramatic vigor can be credited to the unvarnished earnestness with which the screenplay engages with the story’s emotional beats. It’s an approach that is broadly consistent with the MCU playbook, but one that is significantly enlivened by Black Panther’s ridiculously overqualified ensemble cast and their palpable enthusiasm for the story's gleaming Afrocentrism. 

Boseman is characteristically magnetic in the title role, but, lamentably, T’Challa’s arc in this film is less compelling than his ancillary revenge-and-redemption subplot in Civil War. Ultimately, the new king is obliged to confront some ugly aspects of his father’s rule and to resolve whether Wakanda’s policy of strict isolationism will be maintained in the future. Otherwise, the challenges T’Challa faces in Black Panther are primarily stark physical threats to his person and his crown, which makes for some suitably rousing action set pieces but hardly allows for more complex emotional stakes. In the end, Black Panther falls victim to a common superhero-flick pitfall: the protagonist is the story’s least interesting figure.

Killmonger is afforded a more fascinating journey, one that is crucially grounded in his identity as a young African-American man. Bulked up to Special Forces proportions and dotted with ritual scars representing every life his character has taken, Jordan portrays Killmonger as a seething, prowling ball of resentments. The man’s hotheaded demeanor conceals a single-minded devotion to a deceptively simple villainous master plan, one that reveals both an enthrallment with and an antipathy toward the glorious African motherland that Wakanda represents. Given that Black Panther is pitched first and foremost at an American audience — and specifically at a black American audience that has been eagerly awaiting a majority-black superhero blockbuster — it’s intriguing that T’Challa’s nemesis is an African-American whose attitude toward his heritage is pugnaciously prideful but also ambivalent and troubled. Nor is it incidental that Killmonger was raised in Oakland, Calif.: a city with a history of racial tension, police brutality, and drug-related violence; the original epicenter of the Black Panther Party; and the backdrop for Coogler’s masterful Fruitvale Station (2013), which dramatized the 2009 murder of Oscar Grant III (also played by Jordan) by BART police.

Due to the sizable cast — and the demands of world-building in such a rich and fanciful setting — Black Panther has little time to flesh out its secondary and tertiary characters in any meaningful way. The performers capably fill in the gaps where they can, but there’s only so much screenplay for them to work with. (The breathtaking makeup and costuming does much of the heavy lifting; more on that in a moment.) On balance, the standouts in the cast are the actors who lean into the bright, bold, slightly exaggerated atmosphere of the film’s source material: Gurira, instantly iconic as the fearless, honor-bound battle maiden Okoye; Wright, winningly balancing Shuri’s chill techno-swagger with her adolescent pluckiness; and Winston Duke, who is plainly having a blast portraying the menacing yet oddly amicable Jimbari chieftain M’Baku.

Like most of the MCU films, Black Panther doesn’t boast the kind of galvanic action set pieces that occasionally etch a superhero film in the annals of cinematic legend. There’s no corollary to Wonder Woman’s No Man’s Land charge from last year. Still, the choreography and effects work are handled skillfully enough by Coogler, who cleverly uses each sequence to showcase distinct aspects of Wakanda’s traditional martial culture and futuristic military technology. The Dorja Milaje’s sonic spear-fighting style is one of the film’s distinct visual pleasures: The warrior women whirl about, thrusting and parrying, as their ornate crimson, silver, and gold armor flashes in the sun. Also stirring is a brawl at an underground casino in Busan, South Korea, a melee that is captured in a single, sustained shot before it spills out into a neon-streaked car chase through the city. If there’s a misfire to be found among the film’s action sequences, it’s in the film’s climactic throwdown. Coogler, like many directors before him, can’t solve the fundamental problem that arises when two nigh-invulnerable individuals attempt to beat the living crap out of each other: inevitable monotony.

Intriguingly, the director seems most engaged with the film’s action during a pair of scenes involving stripped-down ritual combat. Superpowers and vibranium gadgetry are eschewed in favor of vicious hand-to-hand fights between bare-chested men atop a towering waterfall. Recalling the boxing sequences in Creed (2015), the director exhibits an unmistakable affinity for the gladiatorial brutality of these ritualized duels, discovering the hidden grace in their bloody, sweaty rhythms.

Many of the complaints that one might justifiably lodge against Black Panther — the predictable plot, the reliance on Daddy Issues, the four-color characterization, the diverting but forgettable action — are the same that one might direct at any number of superhero films from the past two decades. To circle back to the unique qualities that make Black Panther so arresting, however, none of those films boasts the splendid, revelatory production design of Coogler’s feature. Indeed, Black Panther’s crew appears to have poured the lion’s share of their innovative energy into the look of the film, trusting that the scaffolding of a broadly familiar Marvel story would support the feature’s bracing design. In this, they are largely proven correct.

Crucially, Black Panther is not an example of style over substance but a case study in style as substance. Coogler and his crew are plainly cognizant of the radicalism implicit in a $200 million Afrofuturist action film with an almost entirely black cast, corporate entertainment or not. (From Disney, no less!) By going all-in on Black Panther’s dazzling design, the filmmakers have created a watershed feature in a genre that is not only overwhelmingly white but also prone to visual laziness. Simply put, Black Panther doesn’t look like any other film that has ever been made, certainly not on such a scale. The last superhero feature where the sheer design of the thing struck the pop-cinematic landscape like a thunderbolt was Tim Burton’s Batman (1989), and that film did not have the same political and cultural import as Black Panther.

Boseman’s status as the first black headliner in the MCU should not be undervalued, but what truly makes Coogler’s film so vital and invigorating is that it is unabashedly enamored with the aesthetic possibilities of a science-fiction setting centered on blackness. Black Panther is what one might get if Sun Ra’s Nubian space oddities were extruded and polished into a pan-African Fashion Week, with a touch of Apple Store gloss. Wakanda is at once wealthy, advanced, peaceful, and unmistakably African, and Coogler is positively enthusiastic about showcasing each of those attributes. The film's subtle revolution — the revolution that undergirds all Afrofuturist works, from Octavia Butler’s novels to Parliament-Funkadelic’s bizarre musical mythology — lies in the startling sight of black heroes who wield their own unplundered wealth and unthinkable technology. (Indeed, Black Panther featues an entire black nation built on such wealth and technology.) While an African techno-utopia untouched by colonialism might be a fantasy, Black Panther’s vibrant, exhilarating realization of that fantasy highlights the pitiful homogeneity of genre cinema’s existing landscape. Many of Black Panther’s characters hew to familiar archetypes previously inhabited by white heroes and villains, and while those archetypes are inherently well worn, Coogler’s film gives them fresh life simply by reimagining them in an effusively African context. (Shuri, incidentally, would make a wonderful successor to Tony Stark — hint, hint, Marvel.)

It’s not one aspect of Black Panther's visuals that ignites the imagination, but literally everything created by the film’s design team — production designer Hannah Bleacher, costume designer Ruth E. Cater, set decorator Jay Hart, and hair-department head Camille Friend, to name just a handful of the key individuals. Collectively, their awe-inspiring efforts add up to a film that is ludicrously dense with evocative detail: from the way that Wakada’s Golden City blends emirate-style skyscrapers with traditional Sahel materials; to the bold, geometric Wakandan script (reminiscent of Ge’ez, N’Ko, and Mandombe); to the little touches like the turquoise lip plate worn by Isaach De Bankolé in the role of a Wakandan elder. While the film at times shades into Power Rangers simplicity in its visual schemes — each Wakandan tribe prefers a single, distinctive color for their traditional garb — such simplicity has the effect of gratifyingly connecting Black Panther to its comic-book roots. In some exhilarating instances, the filmmakers find ingenious ways to marry traditional dress and ornamentation to the story’s sci-fi trappings. For example, when the Border Tribe is roused to battle, their Basotho-style woolen tribal blankets, which are draped over the arm and printed in exquisite patterns of blue and indigo, emit force fields that allows the garments to act as energy shields.

In short, Black Panther is a film that begs to be gawked at, with a new visual delight around virtually every corner. It’s the sort of work that seems destined to be studied by aspiring studio artists for decades to come. (The film’s marvelous hairstyles practically warrant their own making-of documentary.) While Black Panther offers more of the same with respect to its superhero plot, it’s a downright remarkable and innovative work in terms of its faces, places, and textures. This vitality ultimately makes up for the feature’s more banal mainstream blockbuster qualities and confirms that Coogler’s film truly is the trailblazing pop-cultural event that many observers — including innumerable African-American enthusiasts of the superhero genre — had hoped. In other words, Black Panther is, in its narrow but essential way, AMAZING!!! INCREDIBLE!!! and ASTONISHING!!!

Rating: B


February 1, 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 limited 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.

Before I Wake

2016 / USA / 97 min. / Directed by Mike Flanagan / Premiered online on Jan. 5, 2018

Before I Wake takes the mind-bending conceit of Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven and compresses it into a ghoulish, small-bore psychological drama. Kate Bosworth and Thomas Jane portray the Hobsons, grieving parents who take in a foster child in a questionable attempt to alleviate the loss of their son. Their new ward is Cody (Jacob Tremblay, pre-Room), a bright but troubled boy who, they discover, can manifest his dreams as physical reality. This power proves wondrous when the child’s mind conjures up incandescent butterflies, but less so when it unleashes his personal hobgoblin, the malevolent Canker Man. More of a blend of fantasy, sci-fi, and domestic drama than straight horror, Mike Flanagan’s film is clunkier and cheaper-looking than his other works, and the adult performances are markedly slack. However, the director’s treatment of the material is touching and commendably character-centered, while also providing space for Cody's abilities to elicit perverse urges and suggest disquieting implications. Rating: C+ [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Devil's Gate

2017 / Canada, USA / 94 min. / Directed by Clay Staub / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Jan. 5, 2018

Devil’s Gate plays something like a kludgy, aimless episode of The X-Files, one with too many half-baked ideas and the running time to indulge them all. Arriving in a desolate stretch of North Dakota to search for a missing local woman, a hard-nosed FBI agent (Amanda Schull) quickly zeroes in on the victim’s paranoid, abusive husband (Milo Ventimiglia). Said suspect is hunkered down in a dilapidated, boarded-up farmhouse surrounded by booby traps, and it's in this clichéd setting that Devil’s Gate stalls out for the remainder of its muddled and monotonous duration. The film gleans elements from several subgenres — police procedural, hick-sploitation, Lovecraftian horror, and alien conspiracy, to name just a few — and then mashes them together into an awkward, unsightly mass that it plainly (and incorrectly) regards as a bracingly original gestalt. It’s is too strange and ham-fisted to be a solid genre exercise, and yet too dull and derivative to be a future cult object. Rating: D [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Don't Grow Up

2015 / France, Spain / 81 min. / Directed by Thierry Poirand / Premiered online on Jan. 11, 2018

There’s enticing potential in the concept that undergirds Thierry Poirand’s Don’t Grow Up, which adds a wrinkle to the now-familiar apocalyptic horror convention of a “rage virus.” In this case, the epidemic only affects adults. The film starts out promisingly, centering its narrative on a colorful group of adolescents who have been left unsupervised over a long holiday break at their state-run home. Initially, Poirand’s decision to render this tale through the eyes of variously orphaned, delinquent, and mentally ill kids — all of them distrustful and prematurely self-reliant — seems like it’s going to pay thematic dividends. The film suggests that the contagion’s onset might be linked to emotional maturity rather than biological age, but then leaves this notion unexplored as it gets bogged down in a tired zombocalypse plot featuring a predictable pattern of lulls, attacks, and escapes. Even the film’s forlorn, faintly impressionistic cinematography can’t compensate for the disappointing sense of triteness that eventually settles over the story. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.]


2016 / Spain, UK, USA, France / 89 min. / Directed by Miguel Ángel Vivas / Opened in select threaters and premiered online on Jan. 12, 2018

Not since Evil Dead (2012) has there been a remake as pointless as Inside. At least Fede Alvarez’s re-imagining of Sam Raimi’s 1981 cult classic exuded a certain gorehound gleefulness. Miguel Ángel Vivas’ film, meanwhile, is a nothing but a glum slog through the rough plot of the original Inside (2007). It’s a crude tracing that fails to add a single worthwhile story twist or formal flourish. Recently widowed and nine months pregnant, Sarah (Rachel Nichols) has elected to spend Christmas Eve alone. Unfortunately, a disturbed woman (Laura Harring) infiltrates her home and make it clear that, one way or another, she’s leaving with Sarah’s unborn child. This version of Inside attempts to raise the stakes by re-conceiving Sarah as a deaf person — shades of Wait Until Dark (1967) — and then rather absurdly piling up corpses. Such excess can’t conceal the fact that the film trades the original’s aura of frantic, bloody peril for chintzy tedium. Rating: D (Now available to rent on Amazon and other platforms.

Mom and Dad

2017 / USA / 83 min. / Directed by Brian Taylor / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Jan. 19, 2018

Mom and Dad starts with a premise that echoes Parents (1989) and the aforementioned Don’t Grow Up: One day, parents are suddenly consumed with a monomaniacal urge to murder their children. The specificity of this perverse conceit — adults only want to butcher their own kids, not all kids — allows writer-director Brian Taylor to maintain a giddily satirical atmosphere throughout the blood-spattered proceedings, even when the plot shades into jaw-dropping transgressive horror. (In one appalling scene, a woman gives birth and then attempts to suffocate her minutes-old infant.) Nicolas Cage’s unchained inclinations as an actor fit comfortably with the film’s deranged events, and also with Taylor’s occasionally over-cranked direction. At one point, Cage’s seething, resentful dad destroys a pool table with a sledgehammer while maniacally singing “The Hokey Pokey.” ’Nuff said. Mom and Dad’s secret weapon, however, is Selma Blair, whose comic talent for disbelieving eye-rolls and gooey faux-sincerity is on full display — as is her proficiency with a meat tenderizer. Rating: B [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

The Open House

2018 / USA / 94 min. / Directed by Matt Angel and Suzanne Coote / Premiered online on Jan. 19, 2018

The Open House manages a dubious feat that that didn’t even seem possible: a home-invasion thriller that is somehow even duller than Farren Blackburn’s inexcusably torpid Shut In (2016). The latter film at least resolved its mysteries in semi-coherent, if ludicrous, fashion. In comparison, The Open House concludes with a strangled wheeze, offering absolutely nothing to justify its 90-plus minutes of red herrings and sheer, enervating monotony. After her husband’s accidental death, Naomi (Piercey Dalton) and teenage son Logan (Dylan Minnette) move into a friend’s on-the-market vacation home to put their lives back together. During one of the building’s weekly open houses, however, a visitor apparently lingers behind and then proceeds to terrorize the family. Or not. Who knows? Certainly not directors Matt Angle and Suzanne Coote. Mistaking inertness and vacuity for chilling ambiguity, they pack the film with repetitive, excruciating scenes of characters wandering around a poorly lit McMansion. It’s utterly insufferable and almost maliciously pointless. Rating: F [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

January 25, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Run to the Hills

2017 / USA / 134 min. / Directed. by Scott Cooper / Opened in select cities on Dec. 22, 2017; opens locally on Jan. 26, 2018

Like all the director’s features, Scott Cooper’s bleak, slow-burn Western Hostiles manages to eke out rough success, despite the familiarity of its story components. Cooper’s works are consistently constructed according to durable, masculine formulae: the artist-cum-addict character study of Crazy Heart (2009); the small-town revenge tale of Out of the Furnace (2013); and the G-men-and-gangsters crime drama of Black Mass (2015). Hostiles is the director’s take on the hard-bitten Western, complete with an arduous cross-territory odyssey and plenty of late-19th-century rumination on the End of the Frontier. Based on an unproduced manuscript from the late screenwriter Donald E. Stewart (Missing; The Hunt for Red October), Cooper’s film positions itself as a corrective to the genre’s historical demonization of Native Americans and its glorification of the U.S. Cavalry. In this, Hostiles is hampered by both the neglect it exhibits towards its Native characters and by a moral arc for its white protagonist that feels distractingly implausible. On balance, however, the film is still a solid work of revisionist mythmaking, as somber in its overall tone as it is brutal in its depiction of frontier violence.

The film’s opening depicts a scene of white terror that echoes The Searchers (1956), although Cooper renders with ghastly explicitness the bloodshed that John Ford kept discreetly offscreen. In 1892, a rampaging band of Comanches descend on the remote New Mexico homestead of the Quaid family, ostensibly to steal horses, although the raiders proceed to pitilessly slaughter everyone in sight. Only Mrs. Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike, superb as usual) manages to evade the attackers by hiding in the scrubby forest, where she maniacally clutches her limp infant child — dead from a rifle shot to the head. It’s a grim, shocking prelude, to be sure, one that is pointedly consistent with the white settler's perception of Native Americans as murderous, marauding devils.

The whooping, war-paint-smeared Comanche raiders are so blatantly designed to play on hoary Western stereotypes that the opening almost feels like a provocation aimed at contemporary, liberal-minded viewers. However, Cooper quickly disrupts the disconcerting racial overtones by flipping the equation in the following scene. In this sequence, sadistic U.S. Cavalry Capt. Joseph J. Blocker (Christian Bale) and his men run down a fleeing Apache family, children included, as though the Natives were nothing more than rabid animals. Blocker believes himself to be a warden of American civilization — he pointedly reads Julius Caesar’s The Conquest of Gaul (in Latin!) — but his motivations are plainly racist and personal. The men under his command who perished during the various Indian Wars weigh heavily on him, as do the gruesome Native-perpetrated atrocities he allegedly witnessed. This contrasts with the deaths of the Native Americans themselves, whom Blocker and fellow soldiers such as Master Sgt. Metz (Rory Cochrane) and Corp. Woodson (Jonathan Majors) admit to shooting, gutting, and scalping with enthusiasm. Woodson, incidentally, is a Buffalo Soldier — an enlisted black cavalryman — and the intense, brotherly affection that he and Blocker share is but one example of Hostiles’ sensitivity to the complex, personal idiosyncrasies of racism.

Shortly after Blocker returns to his post at a lonesome New Mexico fort, his commanding officer, Col. Biggs (Stephen Lang), fills the captain in on his latest assignment. The captive Cheyenne chieftain Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi) is dying of cancer, and President Benjamin Harrison has decreed that, as a somewhat dubious gesture of goodwill, the chief should be allowed to pass away on his tribe’s sacred lands in Montana. Blocker has been selected to lead this 1,000-mile public-relations expedition, much to the captain’s palpable fury and disgust, and to the prim amusement of a progressive journalist (Bill Camp) who seems to have had a hand in the arrangement. Blocker indignantly threatens to resign his commission, but he ultimately assents to Biggs’ orders for fear of losing his Army pension — the only comfort, the colonel reminds him, that an old soldier can truly count on.

Blocker assembles an ad hoc unit for this humiliating mission, calling on Metz, Woodson, and a few greenhorns like newly minted West Point graduate Lt. Kidder (Jesse Plemons). Also along for the journey are the chief’s family members, who have been similarly languishing in an Army prison: daughter Living Woman (Tanaya Beatty), son Black Hawk (Adam Beach), daughter-in-law Elk Woman (Q’orianka Kilcher), and grandson Little Bear (Xavier Horsechief). Blocker and Yellow Hawk have a history on the battlefield, and the cavalry captain makes it abundantly clear that he intends to make the journey as onerous on the chief as possible, purely out of spite. The ailing Cheyenne warrior is initially posed on horseback for a publicity photo, but once the party has traveled a few miles down the trail, Blocker forces the chained Yellow Hawk to keep pace on foot. The captain also announces that he won’t hesitate to shoot his Native prisoners if they prove troublesome, presidential orders be damned.

Not long after setting out, the band’s path crosses that of Rosalie Quaid, still hiding in the wilds after her ordeal and still half mad with gore-spattered fear. (The mere sight of Yellow Chief and his family sends the woman into a fit of hysterical screaming.) Blocker exhibits an uncharacteristic gentleness in dealing with Rosalie — she is a pretty white woman in distress, after all — and his respectful deference to her grief provides her with the space she needs to finally bury her child’s remains. Unfortunately, the Comanches who murdered Rosalie’s family are still lurking among the cottonwoods, and there is an anxious awareness that they will have no compunction about slaying everyone in Blocker’s party, whether white, black, or Cheyenne. Yellow Hawk contemptuously calls these bandits “rattlesnake people” and requests that he and his family be unshackled so that they can assist in the defense of the caravan. Naturally, Blocker isn’t having any of this, although later events do prompt him to reconsider whether chaining up half the party’s able-bodied warriors is such a wise idea.

Director Cooper foregrounds the way that the story’s unforgiving wilderness setting — splendidly captured in all its raw, lustrous glory by cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi — blurs the borders that divide political, cultural, and moral factions. The film’s title and tagline underline the primacy of point-of-view in such definitions: Namely, whether whites or Natives are the “real” hostiles depends on who one asks. More broadly, the film establishes that such reductive labels are perpetually shifting and conditional. The harshness of life on the trail re-configures a taxonomy that, at least for Blocker, was recently composed of bright-line, racialized rules about Good Guys and Bad Guys. Formerly reviled Native Americans are abruptly re-classified as situational allies against other, antagonistic tribes — not to mention against conniving convicts, outlaw trappers, and hotheaded ranchers, all of whom plague the party’s journey at various points (and all of whom are white).

Cooper’s film asserts that white supremacy as a personal creed is not merely morally vile but also woefully fragile, crumbling with telltale ease in situations where sheer survival depends on trusting and cooperating with non-whites. (White supremacy as an American political institution is a touch more durable, but Hostiles is less concerned with systems than with the individual.) In Blocker’s case, his acceptance of his Cheyenne captives’ essential humanity proceeds slowly at first, only to accelerate rather unbelievably in the film’s final stretch. By Hostiles’ conclusion, the Army captain has evolved from a spittle-flecked racist who relishes murdering Native Americans to a sensitive egalitarian who deeply regrets his role in the U.S. Cavalry’s massacres. To his credit, Bale’s quietly ferocious and anguished performance is unfailingly credible in the moment, but Cooper’s screenplay never provides a sufficiently durable justification for this enlightened about-face.

Although the film doesn’t adequately sell Blocker’s character arc, it does frankly and aggressively tackle the way that racism — and racially motivated violence in particular — inevitably becomes a gangrene that eats away at the soul. Cochrane’s haunted, weary Indian Wars veteran and Plemons’ untested but morally centered officer provide resonant, contrasting examples in this respect. Master Sgt. Metz confesses how thoroughly and irreparably he has been undone by a lifetime of hideous violence perpetrated against Native Americans, while Lt. Kidder expresses his earnest resolve to never become accustomed to murder, even when it is carried out under the aegis of military service. Although the film’s characters don’t have the modern psychological vocabulary to put a label on posttraumatic stress disorder, they do exhibit a keen sense for the mental and spiritual price that is paid for racist violence.

Of course, there’s an undeniably self-involved quality to such moral preoccupations, in that the film’s primary interest lies in white racism’s effects on whites themselves. In contrast, the film feels frustratingly undernourished where its Native characters are concerned. Studi is characteristically excellent in the role of Yellow Hawk, relying on his unnervingly steady gaze and relatively minute changes in his countenance to achieve striking depth. The understated quality to the actor’s portrayal, however, is arguably forced on him by a script that gives neither Yellow Hawk nor his family much in the way of dialogue-based character development. A comparison to Dances with Wolves (1990), another white-centered revisionist Western about Native Americans, is apt in this matter. Kevin Costner’s film offered an unabashedly romanticized vision of Native life on the post-Civil War frontier, but its Lakota characters were generally striking, richly realized personalities. Hostiles, in comparison, is ruthlessly clear-eyed about the historical ugliness of its setting, but its Cheyenne characters are largely ciphers.

Like their white fellows, the Cheyenne men are permitted to ride to the aid of the womenfolk on a couple of occasions, offering a multiracial (yet still gendered) spin on the genre’s standard-issue abduction, captivity, and rescue myths. However, the viewer ultimately learns little about Yellow Hawk’s clan, beyond what can be gleaned from the Native characters’ sporadic, bone-dry observations on the events unfolding around them — dialogue delivered in authentic Cheyenne, to the film’s credit. The Native women are especially neglected, narratively speaking, serving primarily as vessels into which Rosalie can pour her forgiveness and magnanimity. This inattention is especially irksome in the case of Kilcher, who portrayed Pocahontas with such ethereal grace and sorrowful nuance in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005). Her talents deserve a role that is much more substantial than what Cooper’s film offers her.

Hostiles is an unapologetically slow and sobering feature, befitting a story about a journey that is, for all intents and purposes, a funeral march. Although returning Yellow Hawk to his tribe’s Powder River lands before he expires is allegedly the whole point of the expedition, Cooper doesn’t much stress the urgency of this goal. The 1,000-mile trek to Cheyenne country is essentially a pretext for the film to dwell at length on how damnably ugly and cruel life can be, particularly when it is lived close to the bone, as it is by both the surviving Native Americans and the frontier’s white settlers. This is a dire and not particularly nuanced theme — existence is full of pointless suffering — but Cooper’s screenplay discerns how racism both exacerbates that suffering and call attention to its mad absurdity.

During a stopover in a dying stagecoach town, Blocker accepts a secondary mission to convey a condemned murderer named Wills (Ben Foster) to a hanging judge. This initially feels like a narrative digression, but is revealed as a crucial means for the film to elaborate on its ideas. Ironically, it is Foster’s racist good ol’ boy — who purportedly knows Blocker from way back when — who points out that the U.S. Army’s white-supremacist policies are just a flimsy cover for ordinary criminal violence. “We both know it could just as easily be you sitting here in these chains,” Wills smirks at Blocker. The prisoner further wheedles the captain in ways that highlight the dehumanizing effect of oppression on the oppressor. “Seeing all the things you seen, doing all the things you done,” Wills drawls reflectively, “it make you feel … inhuman.”

With a running time just shy of 135 minutes, Hostiles is the sort of Western that takes its sweet time, reveling in earnest, pause-laden exchanges about morality. Scenes unfold languidly as characters mull over their past and future, often while gazing out at the savage loveliness of the surrounding deserts, forests, and mountains. The film does feature some spectacularly vicious action set pieces, including a whirlwind horseback shootout, a muddy brawl in the pounding rain, and a nocturnal sortie that ends in a mass throat-slitting. Cooper composes these grisly, often chilling sequences quite marvelously, using the wilderness landscape and naturalistic lighting to fantastic effect. However, such eruptions of brimstone and bloodshed primarily serve to throw the rest of the film’s solemnity into even sharper relief.

Ultimately, Cooper’s feature derives most of its dramatic heft not from violence but from the emotional and spiritual aftershocks of that violence. These are revealed in the quiet moments when characters speak poetically of their fears, shames, and cast-iron certainties. While Hostiles never approaches the aching cowboy lyricism of, say, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007), it is far less concerned with six-gun thrills or historical verisimilitude than with fuzzier matters of theme and mood. Said mood is overwhelmingly bitter, despairing, and exhausted, reflecting the characters’ preoccupation with the world’s capricious cruelty and their own incalculable contributions to it. “Sometimes I envy the finality of death,” Rosalie admits, “the certainty.” Whether the viewer finds this sort of existential gloom invigorating or wearisome may be a matter of personal taste. However, whatever its missteps, Cooper’s film is still an ambitious, gorgeous, and often moving realization of the grim, philosophically minded Western.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Final Year'.
January 18, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Exit, Stage Left

2017 / USA / 89 min. / Directed by Greg Baker / Opens in select cities on Jan. 19, 2018

In a time of marked polarization and hostility in American politics, the most obvious dilemma that faces Greg Barker’s new documentary feature, The Final Year, is the kneejerk partisan response of the viewer. The film provides a behind-the-scenes, generally chronological depiction of Barack Obama’s foreign policy team over the course of 2016, as the administration’s priorities began to shift towards its long-term legacy. In its outlook, the feature is unabashedly progressive and internationalist, taking it as a given that the viewer broadly concurs with Obama's policy aims. Liberal filmgoers—especially those with a wonky interest in global affairs—are accordingly primed to regard the film in a positive, if sorrowful, light. Conservatives, on the other hand, are likely to spend the film’s duration either stewing over Barker’s lionization of the Obama era, or gleefully smirking at the administration’s fumbles, failures, and post-November despair.

Director Greg Barker is a seasoned, if undistinguished, documentary veteran, with a filmography that focuses predominantly on splashy topics related to politics, terrorism, and the military. (His director and co-director credits include half a dozen episodes of PBS’s esteemed public affairs program Frontline.) The overall “Yes We Can, But…” tone that he privileges in The Final Year certainly suggests that the filmmaker is counting on former Obama voters to turn out in the name of ideological nostalgia, making up for the presumed absence of conservative ticket-holders. Paradoxically, however, the most compelling aspects of The Final Year are those that are largely incidental to party and ideology. 

Unquestionably, The Final Year is not formally stimulating enough to qualify as “good cinema” in the usual sense, nor is it a galvanic political document in the league of Robert Drew’s Kennedy films (1960-64) or The War Room (1993). Barker plainly relishes the access that he and his crew have been afforded, and the film is careful not to tread too roughly any center-left toes. Hysterical right-wing media gasbags will doubtlessly label it revisionist propaganda, but the film is undeniably friendly to the former President and his agenda. There's virtually no discussion of policies that earned the President a measure of animus from the left, such as drone warfare and targeted killings. Obama himself makes a few appearances in the film, usually popping in to deliver a stirring quote to the camera, but he is more of a removed presence than a character, befitting a documentary focused on his presidential achievements (and disappointments) rather than the man himself.

The film’s real subject is Obama’s foreign policy first-stringers: Secretary of State John Kerry; U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power; and Deputy National Security Advisor and foreign policy speechwriter Ben Rhodes. (A few interview snippets also feature National Security Advisor Susan Rice, although she is a peripheral figure.) In the abstract, Kerry is the most intriguing of these characters—at 72 years of age, the former senator’s knowledge, doggedness, and 16-hour work days awe and intimidate younger members of the diplomatic corps—but The Final Year is not really concerned with individual political portraiture.

The primary narrative that Baker establishes is that of the unending quest for the President’s ear, and the tension between Power’s idealism and Rhodes’ pragmatism. This is, naturally, a simplification of the pair's complex and slippery political philosophies, as well as an exaggeration of relatively minute policy differences between internationalist liberals. Still, Barker is fairly canny in selecting his two principals, as they make for a tidy contrast. Power spends her time shuttling back and forth between Washington and U.N. headquarters in New York, while also putting her feet on the ground at human rights flashpoints around the globe. Rhodes, meanwhile, has the strategic advantage of near-constant physical proximity to the President, both at the White House and during the Commander-in-Chief's international visits. 

These differences in terms of access, priorities, and vantage point generate some mild intra-administration melodrama. Rhodes speaks of vigorous arguments behind closed doors, although on camera everyone is amicable enough. However, the most substantial advantage to loosely framing the film around Power and Rhodes is that such an approach provides an agreeable rhythm to what otherwise might have been a shapeless, this-then-that record of events. By repeatedly switching the film’s viewpoint from the State Deparment to the White House to far-flung corners of the globe, Barker keeps the film humming along through 89 minutes of policy esoterica, diplomatic schmoozing, and crisis management—a running time that feels just about right for the subject matter.

Hovering over this day-to-day Executive Branch drama is the larger question of what issues to tackle in the administration’s limited remaining time, and how Obama’s liberal legacy can best be preserved. It’s in that respect that The Final Year is most fascinating, for reasons that have less to do with the the particulars of this White House than with the structure of the American political system. The film represents a rare peek at a sitting executive’s advisors as they prepare for the bloodless coup that ensues every four or eight years in American life. Hardcore political junkies are the only ones likely to find it outright enthralling, and Barker does nothing to make the fly-on-the-wall raw material particularly invigorating. However, there’s an undeniable novelty in being able to witness this peculiar winter period in the lifespan of a presidential administration. Obama’s foreign policy gurus are obliged to keep up with all the unceasing demands of their daily jobs, while simultaneously seeking ways to lock down the President’s accomplishments so that a future, hostile administration cannot unravel them.

With the hindsight afforded by a January 2018 release, the elephant in the room is, of course, Donald Trump. To state the obvious, Barker did not know how the November 2016 presidential election would turn out when he first began documenting the Obama administration’s final twelve months. However, the apprehensive yet guardedly optimistic tone that dominates conversation throughout most of the film suggests an administration that expected to pass the baton to its own party. After the election, a shell-shocked, despairing mood prevails, to be replaced in the final days by exhausted resignation and frantic, last-minute efforts at productive diplomacy.

For liberal viewers, there’s likely to be an element of post-traumatic agony in witnessing the Obama era end in such a colossally sour manner all over again. This is at its most acute during Power’s election night party, where luminaries such as Madeleine Albright and Gloria Steinem wait expectantly for the ultimate glass ceiling to be shattered, only to see their hopes crumble. This doesn’t stop the film’s subjects or Barker from concluding The Final Year on a generally positive tone that conveniently fits Obama’s “Know Hope” political slogan and brand. However, in the Age of Trump, credibly peddling this sanguine perspective entails looking years into the future and even beyond American borders. Barker’s film ultimately positions politically engaged, college-age admirers of Obama from Washington to Cameroon to Laos as the future champions of a democratic, cooperative global community. Cold comfort, perhaps, to progressive American filmgoers, but it’s all The Final Year has to offer in the way of reassurance for the next three years.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A scene from 'Phantom Thread'.
January 12, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

The Warp and Weft of Love

2017 / USA / 130 min. / Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson / Opened in select cities on Dec. 25, 2017; opens locally on Jan. 12, 2018

The opening lines in Paul Thomas Anderson’s new feature Phantom Thread are spoken by Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young British woman with an indefinite Continental slant in her accent. In hushed, carefully-chosen words, she tries to articulate—to an initially unseen listener—the peculiar topography of her relationship with Reynolds Woodcock, an eminent fashion designer in 1950s London. This fireside chat serves as a framing device, with Alma’s flannel-soft voice occasionally drifting in and out of the flashbacks that comprise the bulk of the film. She speaks of Reynolds in the present tense, but her worlds are wistful and reflective. She is attempting to make sense of her years as a muse, lover, and eventually wife to a dreadful, difficult man. As she tells it, Reynolds is a handsome and debonair romantic, and an undeniable master of haute couture—but also an insufferable, supercilious prick with some serious Mommy Issues.

At times, it’s devilishly easy to lose sight of Alma’s centrality in this story, if only because Reynolds Woodcock is played by Daniel Day-Lewis. The actor’s formidable shadow veritably looms over the past three decades of English-language narrative cinema, with his singularly esteemed reputation attributable in part to his demonic performance in Anderson’s There Will Be Blood (2007). Everything about Day-Lewis seems designed to draw the eye: His impossibly regal, Roman profile; his seething, squinting facial expressions; his coiled, ever-present whiff of volatility; his facility for grandiose yet mesmerizing monologues. The marvelous conceptual canniness of Phantom Thread lies in how Anderson—one of the great living American filmmakers, and certainly the most consistent in his greatness—turns Day-Lewis’ overpowering presence into a feature, not a bug. Indeed, it’s challenging to imagine another actor in the role, not because Reynolds Woodcock is such an instantly iconic character, but because the irresistible, elemental force of Daniel Day-Lewis is so crucial to the film’s resonance.

Reynolds, like Day-Lewis himself, is a creative luminary who approaches his work with a zeal that is daunting to the mere mortals that surround him. Obsessive, narcissistic, and astonishingly cold-hearted, the designer is intolerably certain of his genius and the deference he is accordingly owed. The flock of women who attend him—seamstresses, servants, models, lovers—are obliged to creep and grovel, lest they disturb his Great Work with unintentional sins. (Scraping a butter knife across toast too noisily, for example.) The only person his wrath never seems to touch is his prim older sister Cyril (Leslie Manville), whom he affectionately calls his “old so-and-so”. Humorless and effortlessly domineering, Cyril is at once the chamberlain, marshal, and sharp-eyed vizier of the House of Woodcock. When Reynolds tires of one of his muses but cannot be bothered to formally end the affair, it is Cyril who pitilessly sends the heartbroken woman packing.

However, while Reynolds might be the center of attention, Phantom Thread is Alma’s story. It relates how she fell under the Woodcock spell, and how she—like the muses before her—eventually became fed up with the man’s aloofness, abusiveness, and petty, unreasonable demands. In a sense, then, Anderson’s film is a tale as old as time: A woman falls head-over-heels for an admittedly dazzling man, only to belatedly discover that he is an unmitigated bastard who makes her utterly miserable. Alma’s ascension into Reynolds’ dizzying, fashionable life is sudden, steep, and intoxicating; she is a shy waitress at a country inn when the designer first meets her. Her disillusioning descent is equally sharp when she is forced to confront the grotesque day-to-day reality of life with a shameless egomaniac.

Unlike the women who preceded her, however, Alma has no intention of allowing herself to be put out by the curb like yesterday’s rubbish. Accordingly, what begins as a straightforward (if sumptuous) tale of May-December heartbreak resolves into something much more twisted. Phantom Thread never discards its aura of sinuous, swooning luxury, but a sinister miasma drifts into the film’s latter half. The story becomes a dark dance of deception, control, and emotional perversity, recalling the works of English writer Daphne du Maurier (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, “Don’t Look Now”) and bits of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958). There are shades of fairy tale menace, as well: The plot evokes “Bluebeard” and “Beauty and Beast”, but Anderson unravels the traditional dynamic of such folk stories—an innocent maiden in the power of a monstrous brute—into complex, Freudian knots. Phantom Thread remains a grounded yet exultant romance to its end, but it is a romance that snakes off in some disquieting and utterly unexpected directions.

Such marvelous unpredictability with respect to story is one of the distinguishing features of Anderson’s past four films, all of them masterpieces after a fashion: There Will Be Blood, The Master (2012), Inherent Vice (2014), and now Phantom Thread. Nonetheless, the director’s newest film is also his most accessible and stately work to date, at least on its creamy satin surface. The film has the cursory attributes one expects of middlebrow awards-season dramas, such as lavishly realized period production design and a towering central performance by an A-list star. However, there’s no sense of crass calculation discernable in Phantom Thread, even when it luxuriates indulgently in the sheer loveliness of Reynolds’ rarefied world. Anderson embraces the allure of his setting honestly, plainly reveling in the splendor of extravagant, hand-made dresses, but also in the timeless beauty of 19th- and early 20th-century furnishings, or in a pocket square nestled just so in a houndstooth jacket. Phantom Thread is, in other words, an achingly pretty film that adores pretty things, even when the plot turns strangely unruly and treacherous.

Much like There Will Be Blood and The Master, Anderson’s latest work exhibits a dreamy, liquid quality in its editing, here handled brilliantly by Dylan Tichenor. The director’s films don’t have scenes and acts so much as symphony-like movements, and it’s in Phantom Thread that this approach finds its most comfortable fit, befitting a romance told mostly in flashback. Swatches of remembrances are laid alongside one another, creating an almost expressive whirl of sensations and moods. This approach is pinned down with a handful of more galvanic, actorly passages—the events that Alma would naturally recollect in crisp detail, such as her first starry-eyed evening with Reynolds or a vicious, pivotal quarrel between the lovers. Crucial to the film’s fluid rhythms is the score from perennial Anderson collaborator Jonny Greenwood. Here the composer delivers his most traditional and unabashedly lovely work for the director to date, replete with lush, yearning strings and besotted, meandering strolls along the piano.

Anderson’s nimble talent with cinema’s formal aspects and his ability to elicit career-best work from cast and crew alike were already evident in Hard Eight (1996) and Boogie Nights (1997). However, over the course of the past decade or so, the director has evolved into one of America’s most inimitable and slippery auteurs. His films do not exhibit a signature style that is easily mimicked or parodied, and they defy reductive description and categorization. What unifies them is Anderson’s unfailingly heady cinematic storytelling, as well as a fearless compulsion to burrow deep into strange, unexplored corners of the human experience—whether psychological, sociological, or historical. The director’s characters are often eccentric and deeply troubled creatures, resistant to crude cultural boxes and simplistic, multiplex psychoanalysis.

Both Krieps and the screenplay tend to portray Alma as this sort of enigmatic and contradictory soul, echoing the way that the actress’ cherubic, girl-next-door beauty clashes with her small, dark, inscrutable eyes. Alma’s suffering and the reasons for it are as obvious as the fire that at times flashes in those eyes, but—notwithstanding her narration—the viewer is not always privy to the intricacies of her thoughts, motivations, and desires. If there’s one factor that disrupts Phantom Thread’s plain ambitions to be a slyly feminist work, it’s the film’s intermittently frustrating tendency to treat its heroine as a cipher who is compelling primarily due to her relationship with a powerful and deeply flawed man.

Reynolds, in contrast, is an open book. He’s an inveterate romantic, generous with his adoration (at least initially), unashamed of his humble origins, and refreshingly cavalier when it comes to the suffocating niceties of the British class system. (For all his vanity, he refers to his unfathomably expensive, made-to-order designs, which are worn by countesses and princesses, as a “trade”, not an art.) For Reynolds, the clothes are everything. In one of the film’s more amusing and crowd-pleasing sequences, he storms a drunken dowager’s honeymoon suite to demand that she return her wedding dress, claiming that she has besmirched such a fine garment with her boorish behavior. However, this late-night mission of reclamation—which he shares with an equally riled Alma, sealing her status as a romantic partner who “gets” him—also points to Reynolds’ faults. He’s a preening control freak and finicky man-child whose brokenhearted adoration for his deceased mother shapes all his relationships. Physically tender but emotionally sadistic, he jabs explosively at Alma for the slightest reason (or no reason at all), lobbing the most malicious verbal insults imaginable with almost offhand irritation.

It’s apparent why Alma both adores and despises this man, but it’s not until the film’s second hour that she herself puzzles out why she remains with him and what exactly she wants from such a supremely dysfunctional relationship. Devising a perilous means to shift the dynamic of their union—to clandestinely transform herself from the possessed to the possessor—Alma simultaneously turns Phantom Thread into something thornier and more stimulating than a “mere” romantic melodrama. It remains a romance, but an enormously warped one, wherein the leads circle one another like predatory animals during a rancorous mating season, their longings hopelessly muddled with fears, fury, and territoriality. After a certain point, Alma and Reynolds are not entirely certain what kind of bizarre game they are playing, but they are aware that they are playing one. This mostly wordless chess match concludes with a heart-stopping sequence of feints and gambits involving, of all things, the cooking and consumption of a mushroom omelet. Phantom Thread is, in its way, a perfect date film, but it is emphatically not a first date film. It's for lovers who have been together for years, tamed each other, learned each others' tricks, and somehow negotiated a symbiosis that would no doubt baffle an outside observer.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Desolation'
January 5, 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 have a ‘same-day’ limited theatrical opening and video-on-demand (VOD) launch. 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 like St. Louis, online streaming is an 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.

Beyond Skyline

2017 / USA / 106 min. / Directed by Liam O’Donnell / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Dec. 15, 2017

Beyond Skyline—a spinoff/sequel to the dismally crappy, instantly-forgotten Skyline (2010)—is unequivocally a Bad Movie, and not in the winking, kitschy manner of a Syfy original. It essentially depicts the same alien invasion from the first film, but from the perspective of different characters, chiefly a widowed, alcoholic LAPD detective (Frank Grillo). It’s not a complete train wreck as action-sci-fi-horror mashups go. The film boasts some decent creature design, solid martial arts from veterans of the Raid films, and a certain go-for-broke, juvenile nuttiness to its plot swerves. (In one scene, Grillo delivers an alien-human hybrid infant on a spaceship—and that’s just at the film's halfway point.) However, it’s also stupid, tedious, illogical, and a tonal mess. In other words, it’s an intermittently amusing Bad Movie for the viewer who’s only halfway paying attention. It barely squeaks into the “Hell, Why Not?” pile due to the brain-ripping gusto it displays in earning its R rating. Rating: C- [Now available to rent or purchase on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.] 


2017 / USA / 78 min. / Directed by Sam Patton / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Dec. 15, 2017

It’s clear that Desolation is predicated on a noble, if humble, ambition: distilling wilderness survival and serial killer tropes into a single, lean, character-centered work. The result has a whiff of low-budget chintziness, but slim resources aren’t a failing, and Sam Patton’s film has other problems anyway. For a good 40 minutes, it’s a solid and often unnerving exercise in escalating tension. While backpacking in the wooded Adirondacks, a widow, her best friend, and her adolescent son gradually realize they are being stalked by a mysterious, silent hiker. (Despite looking like Rob Zombie in a windbreaker, this figure conveys a predatory menace solely through his preternatural stillness and inscrutability.) Once the bloodletting begins, however, Desolation seriously starts to sputter. Not only does the villain devolve into just another violent brute, but it becomes apparent that the filmmakers are unable to either satisfyingly resolve the characters’ physical ordeal or justify first act’s thematic preoccupation with the grieving process. Rating: C- [Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, Vudu, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

January 4, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Call it the La La Land hangover. In the wake of the overwhelming popularity and wide-ranging critical acclaim heaped on Damien Chazelle’s bittersweet musical fantasy in 2016, it was hard not to notice the extent to which 2017’s best feature films largely rejected the buoyancy, romanticism, and Broadway razzamatazz of the prior year’s box office smash. There were some ostensible exceptions, of course: Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver is essentially La La Land meets The Italian Job; Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is as starry-eyed as any animated Disney tale; and Benny and Josh Safdie’s Good Time practically overdoses on streaks and splotches of fluorescent color. Scratch the surface, however, and one finds knottier realities beneath the giddy infectiousness, storybook familiarity, and ecstatic sensory overload (respectively) of these films. Baby Driver simultaneous revels in and causally topples crime drama clichés. The Shape of Water’s girl-on-piscine love affair is as taboo-busting as they come. And Good Time’s neon hues vibrate anxiously alongside a jarringly bleak story.

In short, it was a year of unexpected complexity, contradiction, and impertinence. With the benefit of ten months of hindsight, one is tempted to read a deeper meaning to the bungled Best Picture reveal at last February’s Oscars ceremony. A throwback song and dance crowd-pleaser about gorgeous white people in love was initially declared the winner, to absolutely no one’s surprise. Then — whoops! — the honor actually went to Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight: an intimate and emphatically queer romantic drama about a black boy/teen/man in inner-city Miami. Also: A Muslim won Best Supporting Actor.

Perhaps it was coincidence, or just Hollywood thumbing its nose at a resurgent and emboldened bloc of right-wing authoritarianism in American politics. However, it also seemed to presage a year in which the best cinema was that which questioned, critiqued, and upended the conventional wisdom with respect to both art and politics—without necessarily eliciting easy answers. Genre was sliced, diced, and remixed in 2017, and discomfiting truths about race, class, age, disability, and sexuality were unpacked with surprising boldness, suggesting that the year’s standout filmmakers felt they had nothing to lose.

This best cinema of 2017 also reflected the creepy elephant in the room: the flood of scandals revealing that the entertainment industry might have a wee problem with misogyny and sexual misconduct. Fittingly, the reaction from many women was not that of a jaded Captain Renault in Casablanca (“I am shocked. Shocked.”) but a paraphrase of H.G. Wells’ bitter suggestion for his epitaph: “We told you so. You damned fools.” On the screen, feminism didn’t wring its hands mournfully or enthuse about how far society has come: It was frank, astute, and often mad as hell. In 2017, cinema interrogated male ego and weakness (Graduation; The Killing of a Sacred Deer; The Salesman), and used genre to convey truths about women’s experiences (Colossal; Raw). It vividly illustrated how women can be both the oppressed and the oppressor (Lady Macbeth), took its revenge on an effigy of every male deceiever (The Beguiled), and occasionally screamed itself hoarse in righteous rage (mother!). And, admittedly, it also allowed itself a blockbuster victory lap where a certain Amazon warrior-princess is concerned.

Not all of 2017’s best works were so sharply political, however, and the most unexpected achievements were often those films that eroded genre conventions and pushed against formal boundaries. Hokey, well-worn premises were rendered freshly invigorating, studio sequels elected for ambition over the safe and cozy, and between Split, Get Out, and It, horror somehow turned into the year’s smash genre. (Jordan Peele’s film, in fact, pulled off a hat trick: absurdly profitable, culturally impactful, and sharply political.) The increasingly codified and artistically conservative superhero picture was clobbered in wildly divergent ways (see: Captain Underpants and Logan). Olivier Assayas' slippery Personal Shopper reconcieved what a "ghost story" looks and feels like. (As did, for that matter, A Ghost Story.) A pair of quixotic filmmakers somehow turned 65,000 oil paintings into an animated murder mystery about the impenetrability of truth. Christopher Nolan made a WWII feature for the ages — and there are hardly any Nazis in it. Oh, and Martin Scorsese delivered a masterpiece about Jesuit missionaries being tortured in feudal Japan. All in all, 2017 proved to be a heartening surfeit of cinematic riches, one that rewarded filmmakers and viewers alike who were willing to venture outside their comfort zones.

A film qualifies for this list if it could be viewed theatrically for the first time by the ticketed public in the greater St. Louis area between January 1 and December 31, 2017.

20. Baby Driver

2017 / UK, USA / 112 min. / Directed by Edgar Wright / Opened in wide release on Jun. 28, 2017

A delirious combination of jukebox musical and high-octane heist picture for everyone who’s ever had to cue up just the right song before pulling out of their driveway.

19. Your Name. [Kimi no na wa.]

2016 / Japan / 106 min. / Directed by Makoto Shinkai / Opened in select U.S. cities on Dec. 2, 2016; opened locally on Apr. 7, 2017

An indescribably ravishing work of animation, and a brilliant reclamation of the body-swapping trope. A poignant sci-fi dramedy about cultural, economic, and gender divisions (and commonalities).

18. A Ghost Story

2017 / USA / 92 min. / Directed by David Lowery / Opened in select cities on Jul.7, 2017; opened locally on Jul. 28, 2017

Formally audacious and astonishingly affecting. A lo-fi meditation on grief and memory, with a humbling truth underneath its startling narrative swerves: Time is a flat circle.

17. Logan

2017 / Canada, Australia, USA / 137 min. / Directed by James Mangold / Opened in wide release on Mar. 3, 2017

A weary, anguished, fittingly ultra-violent farewell for Hugh Jackman’s mutant; a resonant rumination on aging and mortality; and a jarring but necessary gutting of superhero flick formulae.

16. Paterson

2016 / USA, France, Germany / 118 min. / Directed by Jim Jarmusch / Opened in select cities on Dec. 28, 2016; opened locally on Jan. 13, 2017

A sublime statement of humane values for a callous age, presented (warts and all) with such scruffy lyricism and bone-dry wit that a platitude becomes warm wisdom: Live simply.

15. The Salesman [Foroushandeh]

2016 / Iran, France / 124 min. / Directed by Asghar Farhadi / Opened in select U.S. cities on Jan. 27, 2017; opened locally on Feb. 10, 2017

Death Wish, as only Asghar Farhadi could envision it: gnawing, unsatisfying, unpredictable, and quietly, remorselessly critical of everything from sexual shaming to the very notion of revenge.

14. The Florida Project

2017 / USA / 111 min. / Directed by Sean Baker / Opened in select cities on Oct. 6, 2017; opened locally on Oct. 27, 2017

Italian neorealism meets Carl Hiaasen in the shadow of the Magic Kingdom, where a child is queen of all she surveys. Somehow grubby, jubilant, bleak, and touching all at once.

13. Lady Macbeth

2016 / UK / 89 min. / Directed by William Oldroyd / Opened in select U.S. cities on Jul. 14, 2017; opened locally on Jul. 28, 2017

A seductive and utterly ruthless portrait of both miserable victimhood and blackest villainy — in the form of one unforgettable woman. An exquisitely nasty briar patch of race, class, and gender.

12. Raw [Grave]

2016 / France, Belgium, Italy / 99 min. / Directed by Julia Ducournau / Opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 10, 2017; opened locally on Mar. 31, 2017

Cannibalistic hunger as a vivid metaphor for a girl’s sexual awakening. Equal parts grisly and haunting. An incisive depiction of how women’s erotic appetites are policed, indulged, and repressed.

11. The Lost City of Z

2016 / USA / 142 min. / Directed by James Gray / Opened in wide release on Apr. 21, 2017

James Gray’s best work to date. Shrewdly observed, splendidly structured, and visually enthralling. An endlessly layered rumination on a bounty of ideas: exploration, failure, legacy, vanity, history, and personal evolution.

10. Graduation [Bacalaureat]

2016 / Romania, France, Belgium / 128 min. / Directed by Cristian Mungiu / Opened in select U.S. cities on Apr. 7, 2017; opened locally on Apr. 28, 2017

A 21st-century tragedy with teeth. Straps down the most essential parental ambition — to secure a better future for one’s child — and vivisects it, revealing all the vainglorious ugliness pulsing within.

9. Good Time

2017 / USA / 101 min. / Directed by Benny and Josh Safdie / Opened in select cities on Aug. 11, 2017; opened locally on Aug. 25, 2017

The Safdies channel Lumet, Scorsese, Mann, and the Dardennes for one frenzied night in neon-slicked New York City. The result, like Robert’s Pattison performance, is gritty, relentless, and unambiguously electric.

8. Personal Shopper

2016 / France, Germany, Czech Republic, Belgium / 105 min. / Directed by Olivier Assayas / Opened in select U.S. cities on Mar. 10, 2017; opened locally on Mar. 24, 2017

Kristin Stewart delivers a magnetic and wonderfully nuanced turn in a marvelous Continental puzzle box that resists all attempts to curtail and subdivide its mysteries. That final shot: Whew.

7. The Shape of Water

2017 / USA, Canada / 123 min. / Directed by Guillermo del Toro / Opened in select cities on Dec. 8, 2017; opened locally on Dec. 15, 2017

Only Guillermo del Toro would think to play matchmaker to the Creature from the Black Lagoon, and only he could pull it off with such lavishness, humanity, and heartfelt magic.

6. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

2017 / UK, Ireland, USA / 121 min. / Directed by Yorgos Lanthimos / Opened in select cities on Oct. 20, 2017; opened locally on Dec. 1, 2017

Arresting, chilly, and terrifying. An unforgiving depiction of a man’s inability to accept that doom is slouching towards his family, or that it’s all his fault.

5. Columbus

2017 / USA / 100 min. / Directed by Kogonada / Opened in select cities on Aug. 4, 2017; opened locally on Sep. 22, 2017

A gorgeous not-quite-love story, hypnotically enamored with art, design, and history. Most of all, with people: their longings, loyalties, and resentments. 

4. Dunkirk

2017 / UK, Netherlands, France, Germany / 106 min. / Directed by Christopher Nolan / Opened in wide release on Jul. 21, 2017

Sand. Sea. Air. Steel. Oil. Flame. Tick. Tick. Tick. The WWII picture distilled down to a frantic scramble for survival — that also emerges as a fascinating historiographical statement about narrative.

3. The Beguiled

2017 / USA / 93 min. / Directed by Sofia Coppola / Opened in select cities on Jun. 23, 2017; opened locally on Jun. 30, 2017

A visually stunning and morally blistering fable about the lies that men tell and the willpower of righteously wrathful women. Sofia Coppola’s finest work to date.

2. Blade Runner 2049

2017 / USA, UK, Hungary, Canada / 164 min. / Directed by Denis Villeneuve / Opened in wide release on Oct. 6, 2017

Against all odds, they got it right. Everything that blockbuster science fiction should be: dazzling, contemplative, wondrous, cerebral, humane, enigmatic, sexy, and sorrowful. Studio sequel perfection.

1. Silence

2016 / Mexico, Taiwan, USA / 161 min. / Directed by Martin Scorsese / Opened in select cities on Dec. 23, 2016; opened locally on Jan. 13, 2017

Theology, ethics, and philosophy given thrilling cinematic form. A harrowing feast for the senses and the mind. A poetic and fiercely complex rumination on freedom of conscience, the pitfalls of language, and the limits of authoritarian power. A lamentation for the eternal solitude of the human condition. Profuse with handholds for believers, heathens, and atheists alike. An instant masterpiece.

Honorable Mentions: 20th Century Women; Call Me by Your NameCaptain Underpants: The First Epic Movie; City of GhostsColossal; A Cure for Wellness; Get Out; Human FlowI Am Not Your Negro; I Called Him Morgan; JaneJohn Wick: Chapter 2JulietaKedi; Last Men in Aleppo; Logan Lucky; LovesongLoving Vincent; mother!My Life as a Zucchini; Neruda; Obit; The Red Turtle; ResetRestless Creature: Wendy Whelan; Song to SongThe Square; War for the Planet of the Apes;The Wedding Plan; Wind River

Overrated, Slightly or Highly: Battle of the Sexes; The Big Sick; Brad's Status; California Typewriter; DetroitLetters from Baghdad; Menashe; Norman; Risk; Their Finest; Tickling Giants; The Women's Balcony; Wonderstruck

Underrated: Dark NightHappy Death DayPast LifeValerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

Best Overlooked Performance: Anya Taylor-Joy, Split

Considered Last Year: After the Storm; The Fencer; Germans & Jews; A Quiet Passion; Toni Erdmann; Tower

Notable Films I Missed: Birdboy: The Forgotten Children; Faces Places; Film Stars Don't Die in LiverpoolGook; My Entire High School Sinking Into the SeaOnly the Brave; Pop Aye; The Woman Who LeftA Woman's Life; The Wound

Films We're Still Waiting for in St. Louis: BPM (Beats Per Minute); Dawson City: Frozen Time; EX LIBRIS: The New York Public Library; Hostiles; In the Fade; Molly's Game; NocturamaPhantom Thread; The Post; The Work

Tags: Year in Review Andrew Wyatt