A still from 'Support the Girls'.
September 10, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Let's Hear It For the Girls

2018 / USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Andrew Bujalski / Opened in select cities and premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

Andrew Bujalski hides his cinematic modus operandi inside a joke during the first act of Support the Girls. Lisa (Regina Hall), the general manager of a Hooters-like “boobs, bros, and beers” bar, Double Whammies, is conspiring with her right-hand woman and server, Danyelle (Shayna McHayle). Lisa talks Danyelle into flirting with an employee at a neighboring home-audio store so that the restaurant staff can borrow equipment for an ad hoc charity car wash they’re holding to benefit one of their number. The two women ask their target, Jay (John Elvis), for a home-theater demonstration as Danyelle, already reluctant about the mission, is forced to rebuff his not-so-sly sexual and romantic advances. The scene takes purposeful pause to show the demonstration video: fingers tinkling along the keys of grand piano, birds chirping in the early morning, drone shots of a majestic waterfall. Lisa stares at it blankly, repressing her judgment of the display’s empty grandiosity as the video's narrator expounds on the virtues and limitless potential of these images. 

For Bujalski, the purpose of cinema could not be more opposite. He’s the forefather of the “mumblecore” movement — a current of early-to-mid-aughts indie films that are filled with low-key performances and concerned with low-key life. Bujalski’s Funny Ha Ha (2002), along with Joe Swanberg’s Greta Gerwig-launching Hannah Takes the Stairs (2007) and the Duplass Brothers’ The Puffy Chair (2004), ushered in this the mini-genre. While those filmmakers have largely continued working in the same hushed vein, Bujalski moved outward into more experimental territory, making 2012’s Computer Chess, an Altman-esque sprawl shot on low-grade consumer home video. That was a supreme step forward, but now, Support the Girls is his crowning achievement. On its gleeful surface, it retains the low-stakes sitcom setup of the movement Buljaski helped to create. Roiling below that, though, the film contains deep reserves of humanity: moments of spiritual grace under pressure, moral and ethical consideration, and the purest expressions of understanding and platonic love. 

“Let’s go straight to number two,” suggests Maci (the apparently chameleonic Haley Lu Richardson), the superstar server with a permanent smile and a shining personality to match, skipping past the first work rule of “No Drama!” By the time Lisa and Maci welcome a group interview of potential new hires to their Texas bar and grill, the former has had a complete emotional meltdown in her car before discovering that a burglar is currently stuck in the restaurant’s air vents. It’s a workday-from-hell premise that doubles as a series of biblical tests of faith. The day is complicated further by Lisa mounting the car wash for Shaina (Jana Kramer), who has just run over her violent boyfriend, saddling her with the potential for a costly court case. Set almost entirely during this single day — save for a gorgeously wrought coda — Support the Girls works on a small scale to present a snapshot of the lives of these women.

Men are also ever-present, either orbiting the women as satellites or exerting a gravitational pull themselves, perpetuating and supporting a system that prevents the women from flying as high as they could. Support the Girls doesn’t shy away from exploring gender and sexual politics in America, but it is never pedantic or polemical about these topics. “Do they grab you?” asks one of the potential new hires early in the film, and although Support the Girls doesn’t have an answer to the problem of imposed masculine power, it deftly explores the intricacies of that power. Lisa proposes that their restaurant is wholesome and “mainstream,” while later Maci explains how she always smiles with her teeth slightly separated because it generates better tips. The women of Double Whammies are wading through complex waters: subject to the leering eyes and groping hands of men, while working out how to use such invasions to their benefit. 

With this, it’s hard not to think about Support the Girls in the context of American politics and the culture that propelled Donald Trump into the White House. In fact, the film is an impressively concise portrait of the United States during these turbulent times, as well as a celebration of the empathy and decisiveness required to navigate such an era. Besides taking place in one of the reddest of red states, the film is slyly ripe with overtones about race and sexuality. Orange Is the New Black’s Lea DeLaria plays the restaurant’s most loyal customer, the masculine-presenting lesbian Bobo, who near the end of the films starts a physical altercation in defense of the off-the-rails servers. 

Lisa, Danyelle, and Nika (Nicole Onyeje) are the only people of color working the front of the house. Danyelle makes a point that Lisa isn’t allowed to schedule her and Nika during the same shifts because the white conservative owner, played with smarmy machismo by James LeGros, forbids it. Lisa is forced to fire white server Krista (AJ Michalka) after she gets a tattoo of black basketball star Steph Curry on her side — and has to explain exactly why that’s an issue. The kitchen, however, is largely staffed by people of color. When Lisa identifies the cousin of her fry cook, Arturo, as the vent-trapped burglar, she asks him to resign, but acknowledges the day-to-day strife they endure by refusing to get the police involved. “I do my best to be generous,” she says, to which he replies, “You’re always generous.” She still asks him to finish his shift, however, given that she’s short-handed.

Moments like these uphold early reactions to the film as a kind of continuation of the late Jonathan Demme's output, a filmmaker whose features reverberate with the joy and pain of being human. It also recalls the work of the Dardennes — Bujalski’s film can be thought of as Two Days, One Night (2014) by way of the best of the American The Office (2005-13) — in exploring complex notions of work, morality, and ethics, all while being simultaneously gut-busting and tear-inducing. The film eventually and inevitably devolves — nay, evolves — into Hawksian screwball comedy when the workers of Double Whammies stage a coup during the restaurant’s proverbial Big Night, here corresponding to a pay-per-view boxing match. It’s an exhilarating act of self-reclamation that, on the outside, may seem like the smallest of rebellions. However, for these women who center their lives on their work, well-being, and makeshift family, it’s a daring and necessary act.

The cast is roundly magical, with supporting work from the likes of The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’s Dylan Gelula, who portrays one of the more enterprising potential new hires with deadpan self-seriousness. At the center of the film, however, are three spectacularly alive performances: Regina Hall, Haley Lu Richardson, and Shayna McHayle (also known by her rapper stage name Junglepussy). Richardson is effervescent, radiating an energy completely opposite to her tremendous, more downplayed turn at the heart of kogonada’s Columbus (2017). McHayle’s strutting, gives-no-fucks attitude — walked back when it becomes necessary to give at least some — lends the film some of its finest moments of feminine clapbacks. And as everyone’s mother, best friend, boss, and mentor, Hall bests her Girls Trip (2017) performance, showcasing the role’s heartbreak and humor while doubling down on Lisa’s optimism and resignation. Her turn is an easy contender for the most magnetic of the year, and just one of the myriad reasons Support the Girls is one of the year’s best films. 

Rating: A

[Now available to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Nun'.
September 6, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

A Bad Habit

2018 / USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Corin Hardy / Opens in wide release on Sept. 7, 2018

One of the unlikelier developments in horror cinema during the 2010s has been the expansion of director James Wan’s musty ghost story The Conjuring (2013) into a full-fledged cinematic universe, complete with sequels, prequels, and spinoffs. Although Wan’s original feature boasts a couple of genuinely eerie set pieces, its critical and box-office success remain perplexing: Beyond its clumsy screenplay and derivative funhouse tricks, the film just isn’t that scary. The feature’s distasteful apologism for real-life demonologists and pseudo-religious fraudsters Lorraine and Ed Warren is another concern, but The Conjuring’s worst sin is fumbling the genre fundamentals. Since 2013, however, the underwhelming first film has spawned a more frightening sequel (The Conjuring 2 [2016]), a wretched spinoff about a demonic doll (Annabelle [2014]), and an unexpectedly gratifying prequel to the spinoff (Annabelle: Creation [2017]).

The latest chapter in this dubious franchise, The Nun, concerns a demonic entity that has been lurking around the periphery of the series, infesting the psychic visions of paranormal investigator Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga). Taking the form of an inhuman religious sister in a severe black-and-white habit, the unholy being Valak (Bonnie Aarons) taunted Lorraine in The Conjuring 2 with premonitions of her husband’s grisly death. In that film, Valak left an intensely unsettling impression, looming out of the shadows only rarely to flash its powder-white countenance, monstrous yellow eyes, and gaping maw of needle-like fangs. With The Nun, director Corin Hardy – working from a screenplay by Gary Dauberman, who also has a story credit alongside Wan – places this parochial-school devil front-and-center, and in the process banishes much of its shivery mystique. If nothing else, the new film is an illustration that well-received ancillary characters are sometimes best left on the sidelines, where their enigmatic presence can serve as an enduring source of horror.

Set in 1952, The Nun is the first film in the Conjuring franchise, chronologically speaking, but it isn’t really an origin story in the usual sense. (Presumably, the ageless Valak is at least old as Lucifer’s rebellion.) Hardy’s feature is the tale of Sister Irene (Taissa Farmiga, younger sister to Vera), a wide-eyed novitiate improbably tapped by the Vatican to assist “miracle hunter” Father Burke (Demián Bichir) with an investigation at a remote Romanian convent. One of the sisters at this imposing Gothic structure – loosely based on the real-world Cârța Monastery, a former Cistercian structure established in the 13th century – has recently committed suicide by hanging herself from the upper floors. Ostensibly, Sister Irene has been sent along to smooth Father Burke’s access to the religious sisters at Cârța, as they never venture outside the convent walls and are generally prohibited from interacting with men. In truth, it is Irene’s childhood visions of the Virgin Mary that seem to have piqued the Holy See’s interest and prompted them to send her on this grim mission.

The priest and novitiate journey to Romania and rendezvous with Maurice, nicknamed "Frenchie" (Jonas Bloquet), a suave French-Canadian émigré who delivers a weekly shipment of food and other staples to the convent, per a centuries-old agreement with the nearby village. It was he who first found the crow-pecked corpse of the hanged nun. Against his better instincts, Frenchie agrees to escort the newcomers, guiding them along mist-shrouded forest roads and through copses of wooden crosses to the convent’s door – where the stone steps are somehow still sticky with the dead sister’s blood, weeks after the fact. The remaining nuns are a virtual phantom presence: silent, flitting figures glimpsed as they peek through arched windows and disappear down candlelit hallways. In a vaulted antechamber, a black-veiled abbess (Lynnette Gaza) greets the visitors curtly and ominously, wheezing that they should return the following day if they wish to speak to the nuns.

By this point in the story, The Nun’s modest strengths and substantial weaknesses as a standalone work of supernatural horror are clear. In the positive column, director Hardy and production designer Jennifer Spence exploit the film’s rustic Romanian setting to fine, gloomy effect. This is Vlad Tepes country, after all, and Spence uses the natural resonance of the locales as a handy excuse to crank up the heady gothic atmosphere. This isn’t the neo-Technicolor madness of Crimson Peak (2015) or the damp period verisimilitude of the recent The Little Stranger, but something closer to the slightly heightened cinematic reality of black-and-white chillers like Dracula (1931), The Wolfman (1941), and Black Sabbath (1960). Admittedly, Hardy and Spence fudge the historical and regional details, often blatantly: There is a conspicuous absence of spoken and written Romanian in the film, and no sense that the country has recently been reborn as a Communist vassal to the Soviet Union. (Most implausibly, Jo Stafford croons “You Belong to Me” on the radio, which would make sense in the U.S. or U.K., but seems a doubtful late-night selection for a backwater Romanian station in 1952.) Ultimately, this sort of carelessness isn’t really a nagging concern, however, given that The Nun doesn’t take place in the real world, but in Movie Transylvania, where the Dark Ages roll on and the peasants still spit on the ground to avert the evil eye.

Unfortunately, this moldering Old World atmosphere is about all The Nun has going for it. The film’s original sins are structural: By the time that Sister Irene and Father Burke decamp in frustration to an outlying residence on the convent grounds, the viewer is two or three steps ahead of the protagonists. It’s glaringly obvious that the Cârța Monastery houses a monstrous evil, and that the Vatican’s envoys are in grave danger every moment that they remain at the convent. The audience can plainly see as much, even if the pious, dunderheaded heroes don’t. Eventually, a Sister Oana (Ingrid Bisu) furtively confides in Irene, revealing that the sisters of Cârța are charged with keeping the demon prince of snakes, Valak, in check through a centuries-long prayer vigil. The specifics hardly matter, however. The experience of The Nun is drearily consistent: Sister Irene and Father Burke wander around the convent and are terrorized by Valak’s over-the-top, phantasmagorical head games, to no discernable purpose. Lather, rinse, repeat. The jump-scares are dispensed with a kind of clockwork disregard for the broader drama or stakes; like sugary morsels of adrenaline, they’re momentarily titillating but ultimately unsatisfying. When the film eventually lurches into its climactic confrontation, it seems to do so simply because Hardy has grown bored with the characters falling into Valak’s clutches by repeatedly chasing taunting phantoms down shadowy corridors.

The film’s confused world-building does nothing to diminish the dreariness of these hackneyed haunted-house antics. Apart from the crumbling gothic ambiance, The Nun’s most appealing aspect is the go-for-broke nightmarishness of Valak’s methods. In their best moments, the demon’s sadistic games echo Wes Craven’s work when he was at the top of his creepshow game (e.g., A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors [1987]; The Serpent and the Rainbow [1988]). Unfortunately, Hardy commits early to the notion that Valak can affect the actual physical world with his Satanic powers. This leads to all sorts of logical conundrums that might have otherwise been hand-waved away if the demon lord were simply bedeviling his victims with vivid hallucinations. Time and space evidently mean nothing to the nigh-omnipotent Valak, so why doesn’t he simply slay the meddling priest and novitiate with a gout of hellfire or an infernal serpent the size of a school bus? In a different, more elegant horror feature – or a more relentlessly bonkers one – these sort of bothersome questions wouldn’t have room to sprout, but The Nun is so dully familiar that the viewer is inclined to pick at the plot holes out of sheer boredom.

The film is largely devoid of originality, preferring to flaccidly crib from a few decades’ worth of supernatural-horror features, from Poltergeist (1982) to Evil Dead II (1987) to The Exorcist (1973) and all its markedly less-accomplished progeny. Isolated flashbacks hint at a reasonably rich yet unexplored occult backstory for The Nun, a pulpy saga of holy relics, vengeful crusaders, and Devil-worshipping Slavic nobles. Such dark medieval fantasy isn’t a perfect tonal fit with the Conjuring universe – it feels more like the stuff of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics or Andrezj Sapkowski’s Witcher novels – but it points to fare that is potentially more stimulating than the monotonous fight-or-flight shocks that now prevail in slack mainstream horror entries like The Nun.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'What Keeps You Alive'.
September 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 implement a same-day launch, simultaneously premiering in a select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

Elizabeth Harvest 

2018 / USA / 105 min. / Dir. By Sebastian Gutierrez / Premiered online on Aug. 10, 2018

Venezuelan writer-director Sebastian Gutierrez administers a bracing dose of razor-edged style with his latest feature, the sci-fi horror mind-bender Elizabeth Harvest. The impossibly statuesque Abby Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Neon Demon) portrays Elizabeth, freshly married to the much older Henry (Ciarán Hinds), a wealthy, Nobel-winning geneticist. Sequestered in her new husband’s high-tech mansion, Elizabeth is restless and uneasy, a state exacerbated by the awkward, suspicious behavior of housekeepers Claire (Carla Gugino) and Oliver (Matthew Beard). A glossy, chilly update to the Bluebeard legend by way of Frankenstein and Ex Machina, Guiterrez’s film bites off a bit more than it can chew. The director serves up plot swerves somewhat haphazardly, and he favors the story’s prosaic thriller components over moral and existential rumination. Still, it’s an undeniably eerie and gorgeous film, owing to Cale Finot’s marvelously garish cinematography and Matt Mayer’s oneiric editing. The feature’s limpid shocks and needless structural convolutions might be unmemorable, but the striking visuals and juxtapositions linger. Rating: B- [Now available to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Summer of 84

2018 / Canada, USA / 105 min. / Dir. by François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell / Premiered online on Aug. 10, 2018

The success of Netflix’s supernatural-horror series and 1980s nostalgia contraption Stranger Things virtually guaranteed the eventual arrival of imitators, but it’s sort of astonishing just how shameless Summer of 84 is about mimicking the show’s formula, at least superficially. Miming James Stewart in Rear Window, gawky Davey (Graham Berchere) begins to suspect that his policeman neighbor Mr. Mackey (Rich Sommer) is a child-murderer, largely based on circumstantial evidence. Besides a quartet of geeky young teens on BMX bikes, the film boasts a synth-heavy score and plenty of period detail that clumsily calls attention to itself. Directing trio François Simard, Anouk Whissell, and Yoann-Karl Whissell exploited a similar retro vibe in the giddy, gonzo Turbo Kid (2015), but here it feels somewhat superfluous, tacked onto a standard serial-killer-next-door thriller. The filmmakers never manage to rise above the screenplay’s stale premise and clunky archetypes, but they do keep the viewer guessing throughout, and conclude the story on an unexpectedly bleak, ambiguous note. Rating: C [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

Down a Dark Hall

2018 / Spain, USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Rodrigo Cortés / Premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

Down a Dark Hall has a promising horror lineage, being adapted from the work of young-adult author Lois Duncan – who also penned the source novel for I Know What You Did Last Summer – and helmed by Rodrigo Cortés, director of the masterful man-in-a-box thriller Buried (2010). However, the filmmaker’s latest feature is dispiritingly bland gothic nonsense, more concerned with gloomy atmosphere and trite adolescent angst than with creating a compelling story. Following an arson charge, teenage delinquent Kit (AnnaSophia Robb) is packed off to the sinister Blackwood Boarding School by her defeated parents. There, she and four other outcast girls are subjected to the creepy attentions of the faculty, who are determined to unearth their hidden talents, albeit for questionable purposess. The performances range from dull to campy – Uma Thurman hamming it up as the French headmistress is a So Bad It’s Good highlight – but the plot is reliably schematic and uninvolving, blending haunted-house and wizarding-school tropes to underwhelming effect. Rating: C- [Now available to rent via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.

Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich

2018 / UK, USA / 90 min. / Dir. by Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund / Premiered online on Aug. 17, 2018

For all its over-the-top, Z-grade splatterfest shocks, the most gobsmacking thing about Puppet Master: The Littlest Reich is that the screenplay is credited to S. Craig Zahler, normally a first-class purveyor of gore and desolation (Bone Tomahawk, Brawl in Cell Block 99). It’s challenging to square Zahler’s directorial output with the embarrassingly dreadful writing in this shoestring reboot of the Puppet Master franchise. Reframing a story of murderous dolls as some kind of Nazi-sploitation nightmare for our neo-fascist times, directors Sonny Laguna and Tommy Wiklund manage a tastelessness twofer. On the one hand, they encourage the viewer to cackle with glee as the diminutive clockwork stormtroopers enact their own miniature Final Solution on a succession of racial, religious, and sexual minorities. On the other hand, they also dictate that the film's heroes affect a pulpy, Inglourious-style righteousness, a pose as ridiculous as it is condescending. The whole thing is moronic and unpleasant as hell, redeemed only marginally by the anything-goes transgressive hokeyness of the homicidal set-pieces. Rating: D- [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.]

What Keeps You Alive

2018 / Canada / 98 min. / Dir. by Colin Minihan / Premiered online on Aug. 24, 2018

On the occasion of their one-year wedding anniversary, Jules (Brittany Allen) and Jackie (Hannah Emily Anderson) decamp for a quiet weekend at the latter woman’s family lake house. However, the appearance of a neighbor (Martha MacIsaac) unearths some awkward secrets, setting up a shocking descent into blood-spattered terror. A nail-biting and often stylish entry in a narrow subgenre – the fraught relationship drama that erupts into survival horror – What Keeps You Alive is the least fantastical film to date from director Colin Minihan (It Stains the Sand Red, Extraterrestrial), and also his best. It goes too far to assert that the feature’s queerness is incidental, given that the story is, in part, a nightmare scenario built on the distinct anxieties and tribulations of lesbian romantic relationships. However, it’s refreshing to encounter a film where the characters’ sexuality is secondary to gritty thriller fundamentals. Although it indulges in too much wheel-spinning in its latter half, it’s still a dark, gut-wrenching pleasure, anchored by Anderson’s utterly chilling performance. Rating: B [Now available to rent via Google Play, PlayStation, and other platforms.]

Boarding School 

2018 / USA / 111 min. / Dir. by Boaz Yakin / Premiered online on Aug. 31, 2018

An improbable amalgamation of myriad subgenres – queer-flavored coming-of-age tale, Brothers Grimm nightmare, gruesome thriller, post-Holocaust ghost story – Boarding School is a frustratingly messy film, but that shagginess has an unexpectedly mesmerizing quality. Writer-director Boaz Yakin takes his time in establishing a mournful, faintly menacing mood, observing as troubled tween Jacob (Eighth Grade’s Luke Pael, appealingly inscrutable) grapples with bullying, nightmares, and transgender twinges linked to his late grandmother. Eventually, his parents ship Jacob off to a eccentric boarding school for misfit kids, overseen by the amiably sadistic, Bible-thumping Dr. Sherman (Will Patton). Enjoyably weird but ruinously unfocused, Boarding School is miles from Yakin’s usual feel-good fare (Remember the Titans, Max), and it often feels as if the filmmaker is trying to cram too many concepts into a narrative container that is too conventional and constrictive to accommodate them all. The film’s retrograde depictions of disability leave a noticeably bad taste, but overall Boarding School is more of an overly ambitious curiosity than an outright failure. Rating: C+ [Now available to rent or purchase via Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Papillon'.
August 23, 2018
By Joshua Ray

Back on the Chain Gang

2017 / Czech Republic, Spain, USA / 133 min. / Dir. by Michael Noer / Opens locally on Aug. 24, 2018

Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1973 film Papillon was mostly a vehicle for its star, the ever-cool Steve McQueen, as well as a cash-in adaptation of the popular memoir of the same name by Henri Charrière. It’s a shaggy hybrid of prison-escape drama and adventure movie that spans several years’ worth of breakout efforts. The film’s popularity grossly exceeded its artistic merit, so a case for a new adaptation could be made by updating the narrative with greater depth, a unique cinematic vision, and/or more propulsive action setpieces. Director Michael Noer’s new adaptation contains none of these, preferring to sand down the idiosyncrasies of the original film’s characters and transform them into superhero ciphers. This updated Papillon alternates between scenes of grandiose pretense and achingly dull macho posturing. 

Viewers wondering about the necessity of a new adaptation should be clued in by the based-on credit given to the original source novel and the 1973 film’s screenplay. It smacks of fandom gone wrong, an uninspired attempt to expand the “universe” of the story as a sop toward an increasingly obscure fanbase. It also teeters in the direction of awards baiting, polishing the pulpy source material to prop up its self-important “triumph of the human spirit” ambitions. Unfortunately, in attempting both approaches, the story and its characters are stretched so thin that they no longer resemble real human experience or flesh-and-blood humans. 

Although it includes new material from Charrière’s other biographical novel, Banco, to bookend the escape story with additional context, this adaptation is slavishly faithful to the beats of the original film. Henri “Papillon” Charrière (Charlie Hunnam) is a safe-cracker in Paris in 1931. During a job for some gangster types, he pilfers a few diamonds for himself and his girlfriend (Eve Hewson), landing him in a frame for murder. The love interest invented for this version of the story is particularly underdeveloped, as though the titular character needed a motivation to escape prison beyond fear of enslavement or death.

These scenes are rushed, the filmmakers seemingly only interested in the red meat of the story: Papillon’s years-long attempt at escape. After his trial — which Noer’s film elides — the unlucky thief is sentenced to life at a penal labor colony in French Guiana. This hellish place is a repository for France’s most dangerous criminals and staffed by equally dangerous prison guards under the command of a control-hungry warden played by Yorick van Wageningen. Papillon clings to the wealthy, bookish Louis Dega (Rami Malek), convincing the sly white-collar criminal that, in return for financing their escape from the prison, he’ll provide the protection an easy target like Dega needs. For all of its artistic shortcomings, this Papillon is still watchable, mostly due to the solid narrative bones underlying any iteration of this familiar story. 

Papillon seems to gain superhuman skills throughout, easily fending off antagonists twice his size in a flurry of well-choreographed but hardly believable feats of strength. Papillon doesn’t shy away from brutal violence when depicting the lives of these hardened criminals, as announced by an early scene of disembowelment to extract some funds from the stomach of a wealthy but weak inmate. Pairing this gore with the carefully executed display of man-on-man action makes for particularly queasy thematization of the role of violence in this penal system. The film seemingly wants viewers to be repelled by it, and yet it also invites them to cheer when the hero triumphantly plows through five hulking heavies. No humanity for the Bad Guys here.

Speaking of man-on-man action, there is inevitably a streak of homoeroticism at the heart of this all-male prison story, as evidenced by the aforementioned scene, a nude brawl that takes place in the showers. It’s too bad that the filmmakers can’t commit to this subversiveness, pulling back from the sort of masculine eroticism on display in Claire Denis’ Beau Travail (2000), with its all-male cast sweltering under the desert sun. Papillon has the opportunity to explore this tension, highlighting as it does the unending loyalty forged between Papillon and Dega over the course of three failed escape attempts — a bond just shy of romantic love. Meanwhile, the film depicts its single, brief glimpse of gay sex as repellent, framing it as a unpleasant compromise an inmate makes to escape. Still, Papillon and Louis retain a platonic yet passionate connection that is unbreakable through bouts of solitary confinement and eventual exile to Devil’s Island, a barren rock where the worst prisoners are dumped to fend for themselves. 

The performers can’t quite sell this passion, though. Hunnam is fresh off James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2017), a much more adventurous film about the stops and starts of an obsessive journey. His presence here begs the question as to whether his remarkable performance in Gray’s film was just a fluke after years of wooden delivery and an over-reliance on his placid charm. Here, he more closely resembles the gung-ho American Jaeger pilot he portrayed in Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim (2013). For some reason, the English actor resurrects the same gravelly John Wayne impression-slash-American accent that he affected in that film. Malek is the more capable performer, but he, too, insists on an impression, mimicking the 1973 portrayal of Degas by Dustin Hoffman — who was already riffing on his own nasally Ratso voice from Midnight Cowboy (1969). If Hunnam and Malek are this generation’s McQueen and Hoffman, there is something to be said about the death of the Hollywood star.

Malek’s vocal performance choice is strikingly odd in a film full of odd choices — all seemingly borrowed from disparate places. Noer’s images are quite often Malickian in composition and movement, but they possess none of the spiritual or earthly depth that characterize the latter director’s works. Instead, they seem primly and self-consciously posed, as silly as Malek’s wig in the last section of the film. Papillon repurposes beats from other sources, but never coheres them into a unified artistic vision, and the film suffers for that dereliction. It plays like Grandpa’s Favorite Movie reheated to make it palatable for a new generation, rendering it all the more uninteresting in the process.

Rating: C-


Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'McQueen'.
August 9, 2018
By Joshua Ray

McQueen, the King

2018 / UK / 111 min. / Dir. by Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui / Opened in select cities July 20, 2018; locally on Aug. 10, 2018

For those already familiar with the well-publicized life and highly regarded work of Alexander McQueen, there’s nothing revelatory in Ian Bonhôte and Peter Ettedgui’s McQueen. The biographical documentary — that most popular of nonfiction subgenres — recounts the designer's meteoric rise from a young, ambitious, working-class tailor’s assistant to one of the most recognizable faces in high fashion. The film moves through the form’s familiar beats, illustrating how its subject achieved his dreams and then documenting the personal fallout that inevitably ensued when his cultural impact began to consume his identity. The way that the machinery of fame devours the most vibrant figures — the artists who struggle to resist celebrity’s pleasures and maintain their autonomy — is well-trodden territory in films of this ilk. While McQueen also investigates this system, the film’s chief value is in how it deftly sculpts a portrait of a now-deceased man and his passions, primarily through the lens of his work and those closest to him. 

Mostly eschewing hagiography for more complex readings of McQueen’s work, the film mines the cultural import of his art through its subjects’ relationships to it, while also incorporating the designer’s singular aesthetic. McQueen makes an auteurist argument as it explores its subject’s work, showing how the designer’s marrying of contrasting elements — the baroque macabre, the chilly industrial, and a playfulness with gender norms and silhouettes — was borne from his worldview and remained consistent through his unfortunately brief career. Structured around five parcels of home-video footage filmed concurrently with five of McQueen’s most renowned shows, the documentary showcases how his work grew into extravagant theatrical productions, which were as much performance art as they were showcases for fashion. 

The film posits that these shows and their individual designs emanated from the designer’s psyche, a place fraught with personal and political anxieties that eventually led McQueen to take his own life in 2010, on the eve of his mother’s funeral. As a celebration of that work, however, Bonhôte and Ettedgui’s film inspires awe not only by allowing the audacious work speak for itself, but also by integrating gothic, McQueen-inspired CGI to cohere the narrative around the artist’s personal expression. The documentary is scored by Michael Nyman (The Piano, Gattaca), a composer named-checked by McQueen in archival footage. All of these aesthetic qualities merge in one glorious wellspring of ecstasy that is the Summer 1999 show, with its legendary, show-stopping reveal of a belted tulle dress spray-painted by robotic arms. 

Largely resisting the urge to trot out cultural critics to extol the virtues of the artist’s work, McQueen leaves such matters to the designer’s cohorts in the eponymous fashion house that Lee — as his friends and family called him — founded. Former assistant designer Sebastian Pons and stylist Mira Chai Hyde recall the verve with which their founder created his trademark looks, working quickly and furiously with bursts of creative inspiration. These two, along with many others, also explore the emotional rollercoaster they experienced when Lee took on a role as executive creative director at Givenchy and later Gucci, all while maintaining his own line. The stress from being the busiest and most scrutinized man in fashion — and being diagnosed with HIV — meant that Lee distanced himself from the people to whom he was closest. Instead, he threw himself into a life fueled by drugs and fitness, changing his former pudgy self into an unrecognizable muscle-bound man. 

Although McQueen does not make its subject’s suicide clear from the outset, the interviewees’ reverence for the man and their regret-tinged tales imbue the film with a mournful quality. One of the more gut-wrenching interviews is with Detmar Blow, widower of Isabella Blow, the London fashionista who made McQueen a brand name and who would call him a soulmate. He recounts how the pair’s friendship quickly deteriorated when money — and lots of it — was introduced into the equation and the power differential ostracized Isabella from both the fashion community and Lee’s life. 

These sections, paired with those of McQueen’s sister, Janet — whose friendship and loyalty seemed to have kept Lee afloat throughout his professional rise and personal fall — form the documentary’s thesis. Namely, the story of a life is as much about the the people who orbit an individual as it is about the actual individual. These heavy-handed passages co-exist alongside those about love, work, health, and all the other highs and lows that characterize the human experience. As a portrait of a specific community galvanized around a revolutionary artist, the film makes for one of the more exhaustive and exhilarating biodocs of recent years. As such, it deserves to be widely acknowledged alongside the likes of this year’s Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and RGB.

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'The Night Eats the World'.
August 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 select-city theatrical run and on video-on-demand (VOD) services. Moreover, streaming services are now offering original films of their own. Given the dire and disposable state of the horror genre at the multiplex, these release strategies are particularly suited to reaching a wider, more appreciative audience for cinematic chills. For horror fans in a mid- to small-sized movie market such as St. Louis, online streaming and digital rental/purchase are increasingly vital means of accessing noteworthy features. What follows is a brief assessment of the major new horror (and horror-adjacent) films that have premiered on VOD within the past month.

The Devil’s Doorway

2018 / United Kingdom / 76 min. / Dir. by Aislinn Clarke / Premiered online on July 13, 2018

In horror cinema, the found-footage conceit has been employed to conceal mediocrity so routinely that such uninspired application is now the norm. The Devil’s Doorway is a dispiritingly on-point example. Aislinn Clarke’s film dabbles in the tedious conventions of the demon-possession and haunted-house subgenres for its 1960s-set tale, and the feature’s faux-vintage formal affectations can’t compensate for a fatiguing sense of familiarity. As two Catholic priests (Lalor Roddy and Ciaran Flynn) investigate an alleged miracle at a Irish “Magdalene Laundry,” one could quickly fill in a bingo card of post-Exorcist tropes as Clarke’s feature goes through the fright-free motions of dribbling out allegedly sinister revelations. The Devil’s Doorway squanders the potential of its unique, politically charged setting, preferring the tiresome theatrics of levitation, door-slamming, and creepy ghost-child giggling. Clarke’s occasional bursts of inspired low-fi camerawork – such as some legitimately unnerving tricks with framing and shallow focus – don’t make up for the film’s overall monotony and mustiness. Rating: D+ (Now available to rent on Amazon, Google Play, and other platforms.)

The Night Eats the World

2018 / France / 93 min. / Dir. by Dominique Rocher / Premiered online on July 13, 2018

Like most of the better zombocalypse pictures in recent years, Domnique Rocher’s film injects some vitality into a stale subgenre not by discarding the form’s constraints but by making compelling structural and storytelling choices. When the brokenhearted, resentful Sam (Sanders Danielsen Lie, of Reprise and Oslo August 31) falls asleep at his ex’s Parisian flat during a party, he awakens to a world overrun with cannibalistic ghouls. For much of its running time, The Night Eats the World is a solo, mostly wordless endeavor. Taking a page from Castaway and I Am Legend, Rocher observes Sam over the ensuing months as he barricades the building, scavenges food and water, and develops a routine that allows him to both physically endure and stave off encroaching madness. Late in the film Sam encounters another living human (Golshifteh Farahani), but Night is foremost a measured, somber depiction of isolation, one less focused on procedural details than on challenging the distinctions between survival and living. Rating: B (Now available to rent or purchase Amazon, Google Play, iTunes, and other platforms.)

Ruin Me

2017 USA / 87 min. / Dir. by Preston DeFrancis / Premiered online on July 19, 2018

Preston DeFrancis’ self-aware slasher flick Ruin Me is deficient in all the usual ways that mark a low-budget indie horror feature: tin-eared dialog, tedious characters, cringe-inducing “humor,” and stilted performances. Yet, for all its flaws, the film still has one undeniably gratifying hook: It its devilishly difficult to discern exactly what kind of horror film one is watching. Thirtysomething heroine Alex (Marchienne Dwyer) and boyfriend Nathan (Matt Dellapina) are spending their weekend at a “Slasher Sleepaway” experience — part haunted house, part escape room, part live-action game – that starts to go seriously off the rails in aptly bloody fashion. As clumsy as the rest of the film is, DeFrancis and co-writer Trysta A. Bisset keep the viewer guessing to the end. Is it a meta-textual horror-fantasy (Final Girls)? A didactic death trap (Saw)? An immersive role-playing experience (The Game)? A therapy session gone wrong (Shudder Island)? A gigantic con (April Fool’s Day)? The conclusion is both far more banal and far more unsettling than one expects. Rating: C- (Now available to stream exclusively on Shudder.)

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

July 26, 2018
By Joshua Ray

God Grant Me Serenity

2018 / USA / 114 min. / Dir. by Gus Van Sant / Opened July 13, 2018 in select cities; locally on July 27, 2018

Gus Van Sant has always been somewhat of an experimental filmmaker, working both in and just outside of Hollywood. He ascended into the ranks of vital indie filmmakers as a member of the New Queer Cinema movement with features like Mala Noche (1986), Drugstore Cowboy (1989), and My Own Private Idaho (1991). The ecstatic burst of youth in those films, with their playful and knowing interpolation of pop culture, contemporary American literature, and the ’60s and ’70s cinematic New Waves from around the world, eventually gave Van Sant the opportunities to work within the Hollywood system with the Nicole Kidman star-maker To Die For (1995).

His Matt Damon and Ben Affleck-penned Good Will Hunting (1997) would snag its two rising stars screenplay Oscars, as well as a Supporting Actor statuette for Robin Williams in a rare dramatic turn. Good Will Hunting feels experimental only because of its place within Van Sant’s career. It was the filmmaker’s opportunity to helm a tear-jerking, audience-rallying film for adults, one completely bereft of the director’s usual idiosyncrasies. This was exactly one year before the filmmaker would play kid in a candy store with his maligned and misunderstood essay film-slash-remake of Psycho (1998).

Such background isn’t necessary for one to the enjoy the director’s latest feature, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot. For all its dark-night-of-the-soul subject matter, the new film is easily digestible. Some Van Sant history does help, however, to pinpoint the odd dissonance at the film’s core: a meeting of the ultra-glossy Hollywood version of the director with his more overtly avant-garde self. Told in a non-linear fashion with occasional dips into the impressionistic, it’s the story of Portland, Ore., cartoonist John Callahan (Joaquin Phoenix) and his journey into sobriety after a car accident leaves him paralyzed from the waist down.

There are gorgeously wrought sequences throughout, as in a moment of clarity when the disembodied head of Callahan’s biological mother (Mireille Enos) asks him to stop drinking. In other scenes, Van Sant utilizes fly-on-the-wall camera movements to document the Alcoholic Anonymous meetings Callahan begins to attend. Interestingly realized scenes like these, including the occasional filmic realizations of Callahan’s crudely drawn and crudely funny cartoons, unfortunately butt up against standard Oscar-bait fare of the Good Will Hunting kind, complete with snot-nosed tearful revelations and confrontations set to orchestral swells.

Before Callahan has his accident, he appears as the specific kind of town weirdo familiar to anyone who grew up in a somewhat tight-knit community: the unknowable “freak” who clearly has a story to tell but elicits such wariness in others that they are too afraid to coax it out of him. What the people around Callahan miss, however, is the humanity at the core of any individual — forgotten, ignored, or otherwise. Joaquin Phoenix, who is arguably the best male actor of his generation, is able to inhabit Callahan in a way that perfectly elicits this paradoxical response of attraction and repulsion. The erratic anguish he expresses in sobering up and learning to live a wheelchair-bound existence is matched later by the joy and giddy possibility of a post-12-step future, which holds both true love and success as a well-known cartoon satirist.

Don’t Worry is stacked to brim with performers who, while are outshined by Phoenix, still fit well within the world of the film. Rooney Mara plays his Swedish flight-attendant girlfriend, Annu. (Thank goodness the film spells out her nationality, as Mara’s accent is indecipherable.) She’s Callahan’s guardian angel, who counters his gruff nature with measured strength and sweetness. Jonah Hill plays Callahan’s AA sponsor, Donnie, who teaches through faith, wit, and stoic charm. Although Hill occasionally struggles to hit the right notes, the music still works. Jack Black crops up as the man driving the car that paralyzes Callahan, and his two scenes seperated by decades telegraph the film’s arc from devil-may-care swagger to melancholic forgiveness. Rounding out the supporting cast is contemporary queer-music icon Beth Ditto, who shows that she deserves a film of her own, and such other rock musicians as indie legend Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth and Portland’s (and Portlandia’s) own Carrie Brownstein of Sleater-Kinney.

Originally developed after Good Will Hunting as a vehicle for the late Robin Williams with Van Sant attached to direct, Don't Worry, He Won't Get Far on Foot feels like the right sort of fodder for the filmmaker’s more Hollywood-leaning side. Unlike his Béla Tarr-inspired “Death Trilogy” of Gerry (2001), Elephant (2002), and Last Days (2005), the film doesn’t represent a new artistic phase for Gus Van Sant, but it’s still a refreshing return to humanistic filmmaking after the major misfires of Promised Land (2012) and The Sea of Trees (2015). Here’s hoping with his next feature the director journeys further back into the distinctive cinema that originally allowed him to make more mainstream films like this.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Eighth Grade'.
July 25, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Gucci Girl

2018 / USA / 93 min. / Dir. by Bo Burnham / Opened July 13, 2018, in select cities; locally on July 27, 2018

When you’re 13 years old, reality can feel mutable and devouring. A week of boredom and discomfiture can dilate into a dreary eternity. A passing moment of awkwardness can mushroom into a humiliating cataclysm. The mélange of roaring hormones and bewildering social dynamics that characterizes the transition from childhood to adolescence turns every day into an ordeal, and every misstep into a crisis. When it comes to representing this distinctive life stage in narrative cinema, there’s an understandable temptation to veer into grotesque miserabilism, by amplifying either the salacious (Thirteen) or the cartoonish (Welcome to the Dollhouse). To be 13 years old is to exist in a perpetual state of semi-controlled catastrophe, and it therefore makes sense for films about that age to reflect a certain warped sensibility.

The quiet miracle of writer-director Bo Burnham’s splendid debut feature, Eighth Grade, is that it so effortlessly resists straying into such heightened territory. In telling the story of a week in the life of Kayla (Elsie Fisher) – a smart and spirited girl, but also one who is shy, gawky, and friend-deficient – the filmmaker achieves an estimable balance between realism and exaggeration. None of the tribulations that befall Kayla in Eighth Grade are truly calamitous, and nothing that occurs is presented through an excessively distorted lens. She is, ultimately, a middle-class white kid with a good head on her shoulders, and the travails that she encounters during the film’s seven-day span are the relatively mundane experiences of millions of young teens: a pool party, a high-school tour, a trip to the mall, and her eighth-grade graduation. (In what is easily the most unsettling sequence, the film strays right up to the edge of an alarming sexual incident, but then, refreshingly, backs away from it when Kayla vehemently asserts herself.)

Burnham eschews both the sluggish banalities of excessive naturalism and the rosy gloss of quirky indie unreality, finding a middle way that is both grounded and emotionally evocative. Greg Berlanti’s recent gay romantic fable, Love, Simon, makes for a striking contrast. Although well-intentioned, that film blessed its 18-year-old lovelorn hero with such a charmed life that it ultimately turned Simon’s closet-related crisis into little more than exurban fairy tale straight from the CW. Eighth Grade, on the other hand, represents an authentic delve into the anguished existence of a 13-year-old girl – a precocious kid whose self-awareness about her own shortcomings makes her interminable awkwardness and loneliness all the more agonizing.

Less a traditional three-act story than a cavalcade of mortifying incidents, Burnham’s feature chronicles Kayla’s oddly eventful final week of junior high, which can’t end soon enough for her. (In the name of amplifying the absurdity, the filmmaker sacrifices a bit of realism by incorporating events – such as a sex-education presentation and an active-shooter drill – that seem unlikely to have been scheduled for the last week of school.) The Class of 2017 marks the end of its middle-school tenure by opening the shoebox time capsules they assembled at the beginning of sixth grade. Rummaging through the optimistic, faintly pathetic artifacts of her two-and-a-half-years-ago self inspires more than the usual navel-gazing from Kayla. This is about as close as Eighth Grade gets to a character arc: Kayla grappling (to mixed results) with her disillusionment over the gulf between her erstwhile hopes for the future and her dispiriting present.

From a big-picture standpoint, Kayla doesn’t have much to be concerned about. She doesn’t appear to have problems with academics. (Although, to be honest, what 13-year-old is all that fixated on grades?) She plays the cymbals in the school orchestra, geeks out over pop culture, and has an earnest, incurably dorky dad (Josh Hamilton) who thinks she hung the moon. Aside from acne and chunky hips, her biggest concerns are internal. Kayla struggles with the fundamentals of junior-high social life, stammering and grinning inanely through pained conversations with more popular classmates in a vain attempt to seem naturally cool. She isn’t so much friendless as peripheral in her peers’ eyes, the shy girl whose most unforgivable sin is being unmemorable. Her week begins inauspiciously when her fellow eighth graders name her Most Quiet, a humiliating superlative that feels like a repudiation of all the energy she’s poured into “putting herself out there,” as it were.

Certainly, Kayla evinces more enthusiasm for mental and emotional self-improvement than a typical girl her age. Her bathroom mirror is hung with affirming Post-Its – Got Get ‘Em! Own Who You Are! Make Today a Better Day! – and she sketches out her personal-development plans in a spiral notebook with columns labeled “Thing I Want” and “How to Get There.”  Most poignantly, she records and posts brief self-help videos to a YouTube channel, “Kayla’s Korner,” authoritatively explaining to her mostly phantom subscribers how to acquire more confidence and be their best selves. (Her sprightly, puzzling signoff is “Gucci!”) Critically, Burnham doesn’t present this discontinuity between the girl’s internal/online life and her face-to-face interactions as bitterly ironic, but rather heartening in a faintly melancholy way. Kayla knows how to get where she wants to be; she just has difficulty sticking the landing.

Eighth Grade is the kind of coming-of-age film that would rather conjure the harrowing experience of a pool party-triggered panic attack than diagnose its young heroine’s (probable) anxiety disorder. In other words, Burnham is foremost concerned with creating the subjective reality of being a 13-year-old girl, and thereby fostering a cross-generational and cross-gender appreciation for how much being a 13-year-old girl absolutely sucks. Whether or not an individual viewer’s own memories of junior high match Kayla’s experiences, it makes for a stunning feat of artistic empathy. No film in recent memory has so precisely captured the trifecta of constant anxiousness, horniness, and embarrassment that overwhelms the newly teenaged.

Much of this is attributable to Fisher, who is in virtually every scene of the feature. She invests Kayla with a rare, radiant genuineness that almost certainly owes something to her being an actual 13-year-old girl (or thereabouts) when Eighth Grade was filmed. Indeed, Burnham has been unfailingly open and generous in ascribing the success of the film to Fisher’s performance. To say that the feature rests primarily on the young actress’ shoulders, however, does a disservice to Burnham’s wonderful direction and the superlative efforts of the rest of the crew. Jennifer Lilly’s wry and sublimely precise editing deserves particular accolades, as does the work of the music and sound departments, who delicately suggest the aural stylings of Gen X high-school-cinema landmarks like Fast Time At Ridgemont High, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, and The Breakfast Club without resorting to outright homage. (Double kudos to the filmmakers for finding an authentically inspired way to use Enya’s much-satirized 1988 single “Orinoco Flow” some 30 years later: as the score to a hypnotic montage of Kayla’s Instagram scrolling.)

In a subgenre that too often indulges in one-note, self-satisfied gestures, the novelty of Burnham’s storytelling lies in how he refuses to pigeonhole individual scenes and plot swerves. The pool party – to which Kayla received a parent-enforced pity invite – is a centerpiece of body-shame and social blunders, but it ends on a slightly positive note, with Kayla besting her anxiety by singing a karaoke solo. Her vocal skill and the response of the other partygoers is rendered moot, as Burnham ingeniously muffles the sound, focusing on Fisher’s beaming face as her self-assurance behind the microphone swells.

Other examples abound. The potential landmines inherent in a high-school visitation day are defused when Kayla is paired with an ebullient, kind-hearted senior, Olivia (Emily Robinson), who reassures the younger girl of both her awesomeness and the fleeting significance of eighth grade. Then the sweet turns sour: Kayla’s father embarrasses her in front the older teenagers by anxiously shadowing her at the mall. What’s more, one of Olivia’s male friends turns out to be something of a predatory creep. During graduation, Kayla unloads on a mean-girl classmate with the sort of cathartic monologue that would crown a different kind of middle-school drama, but the scene subverts expectations by abruptly concluding in vague confusion. Late in the film, a nerdy boy invites Kayla to his house, where he humblebrags about his archery certificate and lays out chicken nuggets for a dinner date. Burnham could have used this as a springboard to a geek-love happy ending; instead he leaves the friendship ambiguous, keeping it grounded in shared chuckles over stiffly delivered Rick and Morty quotations.

The 27-year-old Burnham first made a name for himself with lo-fi performances of original satirical songs on YouTube, before breaking into a successful stand-up career. Perhaps it’s that distinctly 21st-century rise to viral fame that allows the filmmaker to take an admirably honest, matter-of-fact stance toward technology and its messy intersections with tween/teen life. Social media is an omnipresent reality in Eighth Grade, and Burnham isn’t afraid to illustrate the anxiety, despair, and phoniness that the online world engenders. However, the director isn’t interested in anything so tired as kvetching about the Kids Today. In the uncanny, occasionally distressing new reality that Kayla inhabits, the use of social media simply highlights the extent to which all of adolescence is performative, regardless of whether it’s vlogged. (In a sequence that is half charming and half surreal, Kayla carefully follows an online makeup tutorial before gingerly getting back into bed for a zit-free, Instagram-ready “just woke up” selfie.) For a teen drama where every kid is conspicuously glued to their smartphone, there’s a refreshing absence of Luddite hand-wringing in Eighth Grade. In Burnham’s intimate, insightful vision of adolescent angst, Snapchat is just another signpost on the twisting, nausea-inducing road to adulthood.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

July 19, 2018
By Joshua Ray

The Director's Complete Filmography, From Worst to Best

The films of Dario Argento span the qualities of cinema as a whole. At their worst, his films are eye-glazingly boring. At their best, they resemble dreams manifested on a blank canvas, impossibly complex explorations of sight and sound, plumbing the relationship between the viewer and the viewed. His reputation as an active filmmaker has plummeted in the past two decades, and a consideration of his entire oeuvre makes for a potentially depressing exercise, given that fall from grace. Still, Argento has created films that transcend the too-often maligned horror genre. His filmography makes for a fascinating auteurist study in how a creator expressing an idiosyncratic viewpoint can produce wildly varying results.

Although the director’s standing may have been diminished by his lazy later work, prime Argento is at the forefront of cinematic discussions again. A remake of his most popular film, Suspiria, premieres this fall, with direction by fellow Italian Luca Guadagnino and starring Tilda Swinton and Dakota Johnson. Digitally restored prints of both Suspiria and Deep Red are making the revival-circuit rounds — recently appearing locally at the Tivoli and the Moolah theaters for midnight screenings. The director himself is in pre-production on a crowd-funded film titled The Sandman, featuring rock legend Iggy Pop. Given this renewed interest in his work, now is an ideal time to sift through this influential filmmaker’s storied career.

24. Dracula 3-D (2012)

Digitally created flies swarm around the townsfolk in Argento's sole 3D outing, perhaps attracted to this garbage heap of a movie. Argento's latest is also his worst, a film that would be ranked among the least accomplished films ever made if it managed to be anything but thuddingly dull. It's impossible to find the imprint of the once-masterful filmmaker anywhere in this Skinemax update of Bram Stoker's novel. The saturated Victorian look points towards a Hammer Films homage, but the cringe-worthy CGI sets and effects undermine the feature at every turn.

23. The Phantom of the Opera (1998)

Anticipating Dracula 3-D in reinventing a classic horror tale, Argento updates this oft-told story with a laughably inane script. Phantom's opening moments are the death knell for the director's former glory, as psychic sewer rats rescue a baby in a basket. Instead of the gonzo zoology at the heart of Phenomena, this film lacks any thematic core, piling inelegant, gory setpieces on top of its lackluster production and acting. The Phantom's (Julian Sands) awkward fever-dream fantasy in the middle of the film might have secured a MST3K-level condescending fandom for the film, but instead Phantom has rightfully been forgotten.

22. Giallo (2009)

A jaundiced film with a jaundiced serial killer, Giallo is unable to recapture a single spark of the somewhat defunct titular genre. It's an attempt by Argento to reinvigorate himself within his old stomping ground, but it resembles a degraded facsimile of his own work, not to mention that of his cohorts and forebears. The film’s nods to Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace (1964) don't balance well with the torture-porn violence of Saw (2004).

21. The Mother of Tears (2007)

Mimicking its art-restorer heroine Sarah (Asia Argento), the finale of director Argento's supernatural ‘Three Mothers’ trilogy (which includes Suspiria and Inferno) finds the director returning to his most well-known property in an effort to regain some tarnished glory. Unfortunately, the film's campy fun devolves into unbearable garishness and grotesquery, and — compared to the first two films in the trilogy — lazy, leaden direction and scripting.

20. The Card Player (2004)

A giallo for the nascent digital age, this The Silence of the Lambs (1991) knockoff has grown increasingly dull as time passes, with the achingly slow games of video poker featured in the film seeming more and more out-of-touch. A faceless serial killer promises to murder kidnapped victims if the police lose one of the aforementioned games. Law-enforcement officials are forced to watch the tortures on a live feed as the cards are revealed. It's a device that's understandably interesting to a director concerned with audience complicity and voyeurism, but unlike the conceit of the murders in Opera, Argento exudes little cinematic muscle to spruce up the proceedings. By the time the killer takes advantage of lead investigator Anna's (Stefania Rocca) trauma, the director re-purposes one of cinema's oldest and most ludicrous tropes — tying a woman to a train track — and murders it with boredom.

18 - 19. “Pelts” (2006) / “Jenifer” (2005)

Masters of Horror was a reprieve for many genre filmmakers who could no longer get big-screen work produced and/or widely distributed. The Italian master churned out two of episodes for the short-lived anthology series. "Pelts" is a much gorier and less interesting reiteration of "The Black Cat," whereas "Jenifer" proves only slightly more interesting. The latter — a lusty story written by its star, Steven Weber — gave Argento some fresh meat to chew on. Although its intermingling of sex and violence is well-trodden ground, the director challenges viewers to accept the lead's downward spiral into sexual oblivion via a siren with a mean, flesh-eating mug. The circular nature of the tale resembles prime Twilight Zone, but it's too bad the visuals rarely reach prime Argento.

17. Do You Like Hitchcock? (2005)

Originally produced for Italian television, this cheapie benefits from its relative lightness and its director's fondness for the Master of Suspense. The film is primarily concerned with the most surface-level of Hitchcockian motifs, borrowing the central conceits of Rear Window (1954) and Strangers on a Train (1951) when a film-studies college student plays peeping Tom to his attractive female neighbor, catching her in what he believes to be a murder-swap conspiracy. It's possible that with sufficient time and budget, the film could have been a more adventurous exploration of Hitchcock's cinematic language, as in Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale (2002), the poster of which is displayed in a video store that is central to Hitchcock?'s narrative. As it stands, it's a comparatively inoffensive late Argento offering.

16. The Five Days (1973)

The Five Days is the most conspicuous outlier in Argento's canon. A political farce set during the Austrian occupation of Italy, it resembles a twisted hybrid of Sergio Leone's Duck, You Sucker (1971) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). (The latter having been written by Argento, Leone, and Bernardo Bertolucci.) Argento largely fails to strike the correct balance between broad comedy and brutal violence in The Five Days. Still, it’s a film made by a director honing his finest skills, and on that basis alone it’s worth the viewer’s consideration.

15. Sleepless (2001)

Sleepless is David Fincher's Zodiac (2007) as giallo, only without the ecstatic joy of its creator's implementation of the cinematic apparatus. It's a rote, decades-spanning police procedural that, while having all the hallmarks of the director's previous gialli, is never truly elevated by its occasional dips into stylishness. Given that Argento casts master Swedish actor Max von Sydow against relatively unknown and less-capable Italian thespians, it also works as an interesting case study in performances in Argento’s films. As with many of the director’s works, Sleepless requires a suspension of disbelief regarding the gulf between actual human behavior and the often-dubbed, wide-eyed nature of the characters who populate his worlds.

13 - 14. “The Tram” / “Eyewitness” (1973)

Door Into Darkness represents Argento and Italian television’s attempt to reinvent the director as the Hitchcock of the 1970s: a four-episode anthology series that only lasted for one season. Argento helmed two episodes himself, showcasing his filmmaking development on a smaller scale. “The Tram” is the television work that most resembles Argento’s big-screen features. It’s a fairly standard police procedural heightened by the director’s trademark exploration of space. A literal investigation of movement within a frame unfolds when it’s discovered that the bend of a city bus allows for a murder to take place. Shades of Vertigo and Rear Window appear when the lead investigator ropes his girlfriend into dangerously replaying the night of the crime. This leads to the bravura climax set in a train station, where gorgeously gliding camera movements abound.

In “Eyewitness,” a woman stumbles onto a murder and then narrowly escapes being killed herself. She is forced to replay the events in her mind when the police are unable to turn up a body. Her own personal life isn’t quite what it seems to be; it turns out that it’s her husband and his girlfriend who are stalking her in an attempt to pin the murder on her. This Gaslight redux is mostly notable as a microcosm of the director’s interest in perspective and sight. The uncredited Argento took over this episode from Roberto Pariante — his assistant director on The Bird with the Crystal Plumage — and “Eyewitness” retains a meta-layer of perspective shifts, reflecting Argento’s use of another’s footage for his own ends.

12. Trauma (1993)

Trauma could be the name of any of Argento's horror efforts, but it is particularly apt for this feature. The characters' past sins certainly amount to one sticky web of tangled issues, especially in the case of the lead, played by Asia Argento, making her debut in her father's filmography. It's the director's first feature-length English-language production set stateside, but his European sensibilities create a confounding dissonance within it. Stuffed with whack-a-doodle, half-baked ideas seemingly conjured by Piper Laurie's insidious psychic, it's best enjoyed as a purely visual display of the director's unique abilities with his camera.

11. “The Black Cat” (1990)

In adapting "The Black Cat" for the Edgar Allan Poe diptych Two Evil Eyes — the other half is helmed by George A. Romero — Argento mounts one of his most audacious works. Working in the States and exclusively with English-speaking actors for the first time, the director uses the opportunity to work through the limits of filmic depictions of violence. Harvey Keitel is an abusive crime-scene photographer who becomes one of the most deplorable murderers in Argento’s oeuvre when he murders his girlfriend and walls her body up in their Philadelphia brownstone. A diabolical figure who configures his own comeuppance via one particularly unkillable feline, he’s the inverse of the obsessive wall-crumbler played by David Hemmings in Deep Red. “The Black Cat” feels like an admission of guilt for a director accused of deep misogyny throughout his work, but forcing audience self-identification with the killer also knowingly fingers the viewer as complicit in these acts.

10. Phenomena (1985)

It may be unfair to compare this bewitching oddity to Argento's much better Deep Red, but Phenomena works in a manner similar to the latter film, in that it chronicles the seemingly disparate horror preoccupations of its maker. It's his ultimate statement of humanity's animal instincts and our role in the food chain, complete with insects controlled by a human psychic, an entomologist with a live-in chimpanzee assistant, and a serial killer with a thirst for blood. The zoological alchemy results in a much wonkier mix than Deep Red, but it's still a worthy entry for its sheer weirdness.

9. Inferno (1980)

Inferno was an attempt to take Suspiria to a global scale, extending the former film's grand conspiracy of witches to New York City and Rome. It's closer to the bananas funhouse of Phenomena than its origin point, but the film provides Argento with opportunities to mount some of the oddest and yet most satisfying moments of horror in his canon: a dive into the spirit-infected waters of underground NYC; a gross-out scene in which an antique dealer’s body is consumed by rats; and the Satanic insanity of the climax, which the director would attempt to duplicate in The Mother of Tears, to lesser results.

6 - 8. The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970) / Four Flies on Grey Velvet (1971) / The Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971)

Credit for the invention of the giallo goes to Argento’s horror hero Mario Bava, who introduced world cinema to the pulpy Italian-novel subgenre with The Girl Who Knew Too Much in 1963. However, Argento's first three films constitute the apex of the form. He uses the standard ingredients — a black-gloved killer, protracted slash-and-kill setpieces, mingling of sex and death in a labyrinthine plot — but with his "Animal Trilogy" he elevated the genre into more artful territory. Bird flips the skeezy gender politics of the giallo on its head; Four Flies extends notions of voyeurism into more murky waters; and Cat convolutes its murder mystery to a point of deconstructionist abstraction. They're all incredible, dazzlingly stylish starting points for ideas Argento would soon perfect.

5. The Stendhal Syndrome (1996)

The Stendhal Syndrome is the director's closest approximation of Vertigo (1958): a bifurcated narrative pitting the demure brunette against her cool-blonde self. Masculinity at its most destructive violently rips her psyche into two as she sublimates her trauma into bloody revenge. Her relationship to art, with the titular affliction, reflects her already shaky relationship with reality, making her perpetuation of her own abuse supremely tragic. This is the “least fun” of Argento's great films, with the added awkwardness of the repeated rape and sexualization of a character played by his own daughter, but it's also the last of the director’s truly great features.

4. Tenebre (1982)

Tenebre anticipated Body Double — by Argento’s American counterpart Brian De Palma — by two years. Both films act as bombs lobbed at a critical establishment that saw only misogyny and self-congratulatory style from the two directors. With these works, both filmmakers doubled down on these aesthetic markers with acidic cynicism, counter-subverting their own previous subversions while retaining a cinematic glee. It doesn’t come as a shock when the killer is revealed to be the film’s novelist hero (Anthony Franciosa), as he's already stuffed pages from his book (also titled Tenebre) into one of his victim's mouths. The film intelligently tackles the role of the author within his own work, as well as his responsibility in releasing it into the world. Its self-reflexive moments cheekily reveal themselves on multiple viewings, as the film accumulates layers of meaning that reveal the agony and the ecstasy of creation. A complex work in narrative, thematic, and architectural design, Tenebre also features the most original and danceable score in Argento’s filmography, by his frequent collaborators, Goblin.

3. Opera (1987)

Spectacle and spectatorship are dangerously intertwined in the aesthetics of Opera. The killer is an Argento stand-in here, taping needles under his audience's eyelids in an effort to force them through torture and catharsis. The director fascinatingly implicates himself as a perpetrator of violence while using his skills as a master filmmaker to seduce the viewer into giddy awe of his violent Rube Goldberg machines. Nonetheless, Argento never loses sight of the trauma he inflicts in his artist-as-puppet-master role; here, his heroine succumbs to the cycle of violence in the film's final moment of self-reclamation.

2. Suspiria (1977)

Suspiria stands alongside Orson Welles' Citizen Kane (1941) and Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) as one of the most visually stunning cinematic creations ever mounted. Like the former films, this disco-inflected nightmare was fashioned by a creator firing on all cylinders, using every square inch of the frame to showcase his cinematic brawn. To enter it is to suspend all notions of reality and surrender one’s psyche to a dream-like experience. Suspiria is so visually spellbinding that its artfulness almost upends the All of Them Witches fairy-tale plot. However, the film’s fury of neon light works like the dance-school instructors' poisoning of American student Susie (Jessica Harper), infecting the viewer's nervous system and enveloping them in its conspiratorial web. The film furthers Hitchcock's notions of sex and death being perfect bedfellows by mounting the most deliriously sensuous kills up to that point in cinema's history, only later surpassed (arguably) by Argento himself.

1. Deep Red (1975)

Deep Red is Argento's supreme compendium, chronicling all of the director's themes with precision and playfulness: film's ability to alter reality within spaces and memories; excavations of the past to reveal an always-present buried paradigm; and the dialectical nature of gender, sex, and violence with their cultural imbalances. It's all the more miraculous that it appeared so early in his directorial career — a kind of pronouncement of mastery carefully spinning webs outward toward the future. Thrusting the audience through the red-velvet curtains onto an arch proscenium in its opening, the film is confidently aware of its own importance and giddy filmic prowess.

Hitchcock’s other great acolyte, Brian De Palma, is compared to Jean-Luc Godard more often than is his Italian cohort. Yet Deep Red showcases Argento's postmodern deconstruction of symbols throughout art, history, and cinema — much like the early “movie-movies” of the French New Wave director. Casting David Hemmings as the protagonist whose perception and memory becomes warped as he investigates a murder is to put a fine point on Deep Red's interpolation of Antonio's Blow-Up (1966). However, the film never feels slavish to cinematic history, creating contrasts with the inexorable way that the characters' pasts dictate their fates. The film is also remarkably fun, a dreamy and violent puzzle box featuring dazzling setpieces buttressed by the romantic comedy between Hemmings' jazz musician and his girl Friday played by Daria Nicolodi, Argento's then-wife. Somehow at once wonky and perfectly calibrated, Deep Red is one of cinema's great masterpieces, featuring a final image as haunting as any in film history.

Tags: Ranked Joshua Ray

A still from 'Unfriended: Dark Web'.
July 18, 2018
By Andrew Wyatt

Game Night

2018 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Stephen Susco / Opens in wide release on July 20, 2018

Cinematic universes are all the rage these days, despite the fact that Marvel is the only studio that has truly cracked how to successfully translate the daunting challenges of such long-term pop storytelling into box-office billions (and modest critical acclaim). The impulse has even filtered down into sub-blockbuster genres like horror, as exemplified by New Line Cinema’s dubious Conjuring series, which now comprises four feature films and counting. It’s easy to see how the built-in audience of a sprawling franchise – more expansive and carefully integrated than the iterative Fridays and Nightmares of the past – might appeal to a horror studio. The genre tends to be a low-risk, high-return endeavor, where even a critical dud can turn a profit in its first weekend thanks to compulsive genre enthusiasts and adolescent multiplex patrons.

All due credit to Blumhouse Productions, then: Given the ripe opportunity to launch yet another unwanted series alongside its Insidious, The Purge, and Paranormal Activity franchises, the horror studio opted for something much more intriguing than a mere “shared universe” with its sequel to 2014’s surprisingly effective Unfriended. The new film, rather vacantly titled Unfriended: Dark Web, isn’t a narrative sequel at all, but rather a repurposing of the first feature’s irresistible formal conceit. A standalone story that – like its predecessor – unfolds almost entirely on a single MacBook laptop screen, Dark Web isn’t even in the same subgenre as the 2014 film. Where Unfriended was a vengeful ghost story with a digital angle, the sequel is a paranoid techno-thriller with gaudy horror highlights.

The film’s literal point-of-view character is Matias (Colin Woodell), an aspiring twentysomething programmer who has just “acquired” a new laptop. (It’s shortly revealed that he didn’t purchase the computer on Craigslist, as he initially claims, but stole it from the lost-and-found at a local coffee shop; that plot point becomes, shall we say, significant.) Matias has a standing date to play Cards Against Humanity via Skype with his pals Serena (Rebecca Rittenhouse), Nari (Betty Gabriel), Damon (Andrew Lees), Lexx (Savira Windyani), and AJ (Connor Del Rio), and tonight, as it happens, is game night. However, Matias is distracted from the group’s usual filthy-minded tomfoolery by his recently rocky relationship with girlfriend Amaya (Stephanie Nogueras). She is deaf and Matias is not, and that difference is beginning to create friction. Matias is writing an app to facilitate video chats between the two of them, but the problems are deeper, manifested in his unwillingness to put more than a cursory effort into learning American Sign Language (ASL).

This skin-deep relationship angst is the most substantial characterization afforded to the film’s cast by Stephen Susco – best known for penning the American remakes of The Grudge (2004) and its sequel (2006), and here making his directorial debut in place of Unfriended helmer Levan Gabriadze. Like most horror-film victims, Matias’ buddies are only afforded one or two characteristics apiece. AJ is an exhausting conspiracy-monger; Damon is a tech guru of some sort; Lexx is an electronic-music DJ; and Serena and Nari are a lesbian couple, the former worried about her cancer-afflicted mother and the latter struggling with how to come out to her homophobic family. These are not what one would call well-rounded characters, but since – surprise! – they’re all going to die over the course of the film’s blessedly lean 88-minute running time, complexity isn’t really a necessity.

Besides his relationship troubles, Matias is also preoccupied by his new laptop, which exhibits numerous strange features. The computer’s enigmatic owner (identified only as “Norah C. IV”) is still logged into their various accounts. These include a Facebook profile that is bombarded with messages from strange women, all of whom the mystery owner seems to have been enticing or manipulating. As his friends natter on via Skype and his messages with Amaya become more and more fraught, Matias soon discovers that the laptop’s hard drive is filled with hidden video files and some sort of dark web application. The videos appear to be random security and web-camera footage, most of it banal in nature. However, a conspicuous subfolder labeled “Contributions” contains disturbing clips of young women being confined, tortured, and murdered. It’s roughly at this point that the laptop’s owner begins sending Matias threatening messages, demanding the computer’s return in exchange for Amaya’s continuing physical safety. The catch is that Matias and his still-oblivious friends are forbidden to disconnect from the Skype call or contact the police; to make the consequences clear, a digitally scrambled figure kills Amaya’s roommate (Chelsea Alden) while Matias watches.

The minute-to-minute details of the film’s increasingly ludicrous, Saw-indebted plot are significantly more complex than the above summary conveys, but the underlying premise is fairly straightforward. Namely: Matias has stumbled onto a dark web network for the purchase and exchange of made-to-order snuff films, and the members of this perverse file-sharing group are murderously determined to quash his discovery. As in the original Unfriended, this story plays out in real time on a MacBook screen, with the attendant flurry of instant messages, video chats, Spotify playlists, Web searches, incoming emails, and other desktop bric-a-brac.

Like Gabriadze before him, director Susco exhibits a flair for this high-concept formal framework, imbuing his story with plenty of momentum, dread, and unexpectedly intense nervous energy. The shift from status-obsessed high-school students to more relaxed and self-assured – though no less dim-witted – young adults instills Dark Web with greater mortal urgency compared to its predecessor. This is the case even though the new film’s tale of omnipotent, bloodthirsty hackers-cum-killers is about as realistic as the first feature’s vindictive digital ghost. Like the all-powerful Consumer Recreation Services in David Fincher’s The Game (1997), the anonymous malefactors who are tormenting Matias and his friends seem to be capable of limitless acts of digital and real-world terrorism, co-opting any electronic device in moments and sending throngs of hoodie-clad minions out to do their bidding. (Conveniently, Matias and most of his friends live in the same West Coast city, although it turns out that even the London-based Damon isn’t beyond the villains’ reach.)

Admittedly, some of the original film’s thematic potency, which was almost Biblical in flavor, has been lost in this outing. Dark Web exchanges raw anxieties about intimate, personal privacy – the terror that “every secret thing” will come to light, our shames live-streamed to the world – for a more generalized digital-era paranoia. Susco mines the suspicion that all online activity, whether momentous or drearily mundane, is available for inspection by sufficiently skilled and determined evildoers. Of course, the Internet of Things ensures that that there are no truly offline activities anymore, a troubling paradigm shift that Dark Web exploits by suggesting that nothing is beyond the reach of its shadowy, murder-addicted techo-criminals. Real life has almost caught up with the absurdities featured in The Net (1995), such that when Matias disbelievingly asks whether the hackers could remotely monkeywrench the city’s subway system, the question hangs in the air, gravid with dread plausibility.

Ultimately, Dark Web doesn’t offer much beyond its recycled yet still-compelling formal hook and the nimble execution thereof. The characters are predictably thin and the dialogue often flat-footed, draining the film’s most elaborate set pieces – such as a strangely lopsided Sophie’s choice that is forced on Serena – of any real pathos. Still, one doesn’t settle into a Blumhouse feature expecting profound emotional resonance, or much of anything beyond a reliable fright-delivery system. Like its predecessor, however, Dark Web sets itself apart from most of the studio’s features by emphasizing a pall of encroaching doom rather than jump-scares. Much of the anguish in Susco’s feature is about waiting helplessly as a lethal vice ratchets closed. For all their technical ingenuity and relative innocence, it’s painfully clear that Matias and his friends will be devoured by their tormentors’ malicious resolve. And all because Matias stole a laptop. (In this, the film echoes some of the blackly comic nihilism of Sam Raimi’s horror features.)

Moreover, unlike the aforementioned Saw films and other franchises that highlight the sadistic puppetmaster’s glee – making the viewer unpleasantly complicit in that bloodthirsty delight – Dark Web identifies foremost with the terror of its pitiable victims. Their feelings of impotence against a depraved, technologically savvy horde are keenly felt. This is most apparent in the film’s climax, where the network’s nameless snuff-film enthusiasts take an insta-poll to determine whether Dark Web’s final victim lives or dies. It’s not the result that elicits horror but the number of votes, which steadily roll upward into the hundreds, and then the thousands. In an era when the most nakedly cruel and bigoted Tweets reap tens of thousands of Likes, that sense of being woefully outnumbered by an ascendent community of moral monsters is unfortunately on point.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt