A still from 'Missing Link'.
April 12, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Some Bigfoots to Fill

2019 / Canada, USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Chris Butler / Opens in wide release on Apr. 12, 2019

The title of Laika Studio’s latest, Missing Link, has at least three meanings. It ostensibly refers to the erudite yet naive Bigfoot character, Mr. Link A.K.A. Susan (voiced by Zach Galifianakis). This furry fellow calls on the charlatan British explorer, Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), to spirit him away from his hermetic life in the Pacific Northwest to the Himalayan mountains, so that he might join his possible Yeti brethren. However, the title also alludes to the animated adventure’s content and form, bridging the gulf between classic Hollywood action films – via allusions to Gunga Din (1939), John Ford’s Westerns, and the serials that inspired the Indiana Jones films, et al. – and digital-era populist filmmaking.

A more successful meta-meaning lies in the studio’s further integration of their trademark stop-motion technique with the more commonly deployed CGI animation – an inch-by-inch closing of the gap between the uncanny, herky-jerky, old-school style and the more polished, still-developing one. This technological advancement is quite apparent in Missing Link’s gorgeous sights: shimmery and cavernous icescapes; lived-in Victorian-era English architecture and design; a dirt- and mud-caked Western town straight out of McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971); and (as odd as it may be to say) incredibly lifelike human skin stretched over angular caricatures of faces and bodies.

Unfortunately, the film’s borrowing of tried-and-true, old-fashioned narratives is less successful than these miniature wonders. Laika’s previous outing, the superlative Kubo and the Two Strings (2016), presented a visually inventive and emotionally-resonant fantasy rooted in Japanese myths and folklore. Accordingly, one might anticipate that Missing Link would contain the keen wit, great stakes, and careful character building of the former. It doesn’t, exactly. That’s not to say that it completely lacks these qualities, but the few moments that exhibit them lack the exhilarating originality with which Laika films are often credited.

Missing Link also stands apart from the studio’s previous works in that, while their features are purportedly for kids and families, it’s difficult to imagine that the youngest cohort of viewers will be satiated by this outing’s leisurely pacing, sparse laughs, and lack of a child proxy. With that, it is surprisingly similar to another recent, albeit more revisionist, exploration film, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016). While that feature’s fresh take on the genre presented its protagonist on a hamster wheel of obsession, Missing Link eschews any new ideas about the inextricable strands of discovery and colonialism for a more traditional globe-trotting narrative.

Nevertheless, similar beats and characters are present. Much like Lost City’s protagonist, Frost is a foolhardy dilettante scorned by a society of explorers due to his presentational manner and lack of evidence for his proposed discoveries. The cold open presents a bungled attempt at capturing a picture of the Loch Ness Monster, a debacle that results in a near-death experience for the man’s partner – which Frost glibly tosses off as a mere occupational hazard. He then receives an anonymous letter stating the whereabouts of the legendary Sasquatch, prompting him to boast about his planned trip to capture the beast to his main rival, the respected elder Lord Piggot-Dunceby (Stephen Fry).

Frost arrives in the States to find that the the letter’s author was the elusive, hairy hominid himself, who wrote to Frost after seeing the Englishman’s exploits plastered on the front pages of newspapers. Frost is surprised to learn that not only is this creature – which he later dubs “Mr. Link” – capable of speech, but he is also a being of great intelligence, save for his inability to grasp sarcasm. (This results in the film’s best comic moments.) After striking a mutually beneficial deal to get Link to the mountains of Central Asia, the two traverse the globe with Link traveling incognito in uncomfortably small gentleman’s attire.

What follows is an episodic journey through various classic genres and their associated locales. A stop in a gunslinger’s saloon results in an all-out bar brawl. Frost and Link heisting a map from the Southwestern U.S. home of the explorer’s former partner’s wife, Adelina Fortnight (Zoe Saldana), results in her joining their journey. A boat ride across the Atlantic presents a rip-roaring action setpiece with the three confronting a hitman, Willard Stank (Timothy Olyphant), hired by Piggot-Dunceby to eliminate Frost and crew. (Again, who exactly is this for?). Although these episodes often lack purpose other than creatively updating tropes with new tech, each section is still handsomely realized, with direction by Chris Butler of Laika’s ParaNorman (2012) that resembles a less-precious version of Wes Anderson’s ornate dollhouse style, complete with a camera that moves smoothly along the horizontal axis.

The players meet in the denouement, which is set in the fictional paradise Shangri-La from James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon (itself adapted twice into adventure yarns in 1937 and 1973). The Yeti overlords reject “redneck cousin” Mr. Link – now going by Susan, after Frost allows him some much-needed autonomy – raising the possibility that the title Missing Link may have yet another meaning about the journey of self-discovery and self-actualization. That notion, although entirely earned through its two leads’ arcs, nevertheless tows the line between touching and trite. With that, the film ultimately fails to transcend to anything beyond its technological achievements, becoming a minor misstep in Laika's nearly unbreakable chain of artistic success.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Diane'.
April 10, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Vivre sa vie

2018 / USA / 95 min. / Dir. by Kent Jones / Opened in select cities on Mar. 29, 2019; locally on Apr. 5, 2019

Diane (Mary Kay Place) is a caretaker – not in any professional sense but as an overriding aspect of her identity. The middle-aged New Englander is a star exerting a gravitational pull on the planets that orbit her. Diane’s hospital-bound cousin, Donna (Deirdre O'Connell), has ovarian cancer and requires her companionship. Her wayward son, Brian (Jake Lacy), is drug-addled, unable to perform basic daily functions. Her other friends and family rely on her as much as the patrons of the free church supper where she volunteers weekly. As those bodies gradually spin off their axes and away from Diane, either by gaining their own agency or eventually dying, she experiences a whittling away of her supposed core self. 

Director Kent Jones’ Diane is the antithesis of Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, another recent exploration of a middle-aged woman questioning her existence. While the latter takes a frothy approach to aging through the titular character’s quest for romantic fulfilment, Jones’ narrative-feature debut is spare and melancholy, realizing its protagonist’s dark night of the soul with visual and narrative austerity. Taking equal inspiration from patron saint of cinema Robert Bresson and the New Hollywood films of the 1970s, Diane is an impressive first outing by one of the best living film critics. It’s also a rich and moving character piece, anchored by a masterclass performance from one of the great unsung actors of the past 40 years, Mary Kay Place. 

Much as the sun-drenched Los Angeles setting of Gloria Bell lent that film an appropriately light tone, the brittle Massachusetts winters of Diane reflect the insular, cloistered community that surrounds the eponymous character. For Diane, small-town life is not the oppressive force it is so many other films with similar settings. It’s simply that her seemingly menial existence is all she’s ever known. She exchanges casseroles with a next-door neighbor regularly. She launders Brian’s clothing as a means of checking on him. She plays gin rummy with Donna in her hospital room. She carts her Aunt Mary (Estelle Parsons) around to see Donna and to family dinners. She frequents various down-home buffets with her best friend, Bobbie (comedy legend Andrea Martin). With each cycle of these routines, however, Diane struggles to balance her increasing resentment with her sense of duty. Jones makes this tension easy to sympathize with due to the repetitive structure of the film’s first half, an approach dictated by Diane’s regimen of selfless acts. 

Place, however, creates a fully empathetic entry point into the character’s struggles. The actor got her start in earnest on Norman Lear’s cult soap-opera satire Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman (1975-76), and although that television program was short-lived, she’s persisted ever since as a great supporting performer in such diverse films as The Big Chill (1983), Being John Malkovich (1999), and It’s Complicated (2009). Diane is Place’s compendium of the types of roles in which she’s usually cast – doting mother, cheery best friend, or benevolent authority figure – but the character is also a striking opportunity to share an authorial mark on a film through performance. (O’Connell also demonstrates she is capable of the same showcase portrayal.) In the hands of another performer, Jones’ occasionally sedate scripting might have been more obvious, but Place miraculously carries Diane’s lifetime of memories with her, lending nuance to even the humblest of scenes in a small, on-the-surface film. 

That naturalistic approach means that there are thankfully no grandstanding monologues about a life never lived. Rather, each scene is suffused with a reckoning for a past that dictates the present. A family dinner filled with oft-told anecdotes perfectly encapsulates generational inheritance and rifts, and the revelation about Diane’s summer fling with Donna’s boyfriend gently reverberates through the film. Those memories consume Diane while her purpose as a communal anchor fades away. Jones then smartly structures the latter half of the narrative to mirror the perceived exponential compression of time that comes with aging, relying on increasingly elliptical – and sometimes even surreal – passages as Diane grows older. She turns to writing in a journal, capturing her dreams and attempting to reckon with her desolation through poetry: “My shadow is always with me,” she writes.

The Bressonian influence on Diane is clear from the start – the focus on process in the diegesis, the paring down of visual and narrative flourishes, the central figure in an existential and spiritual crisis – but the French master’s recurring theme of human communion with God becomes the main thrust of Diane’s latter half. The church binds Diane’s community, but when Brian, fresh from rehab, joins an oppressively evangelical Christian sect, she begins to doubt her own Christian focus. When she expresses these doubts to a former patron of the free church dinners, he attempts to comfort her: “When you served me, I always felt sanctified.” Diane ultimately becomes about leading a life in service of others, but its abrupt and alienating ending puts a fine point on the futility in giving up complete autonomy for a life of service. How do you value your life’s supposed purpose when all you’re left with is yourself, your memories, and your regret? Diane doesn’t have the answers, but its power lies in its questions. 

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from "Pet Sematary'.
April 4, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

The Cat Came Back the Very Next Day

2019 / USA / 101 min. / Dir. by Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer / Opens in wide release on April 5, 2019

[Note: This review contains minor spoilers for the 1983 novel Pet Sematary and its 1989 film adaptation.]

Unhappy endings are hardly a recent phenomenon in horror cinema. No less a film than Night of the Living Dead (1968) boasts one of the bleakest finales of all time. Over the decades, the genre has offered up endings characterized by howling shellshock (The Last House on the Left, 1972; The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, 1974), disturbing ambiguity (The Shining, 1980; The Thing, 1982) and sadistic fake-outs (Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1978; A Nightmare on Elm Street, 1984). Something definitive shifted in 1999, however, with the one-two punch of The Ring and The Blair Witch Project. Those films offered not just unhappy endings but doom-drenched assertions of Evil’s might, reach, and inexorable triumph. In the 21st century, it’s now the norm for horror films to punch out on a malicious twist, undoing whatever victory the heroes thought they had achieved against the forces of darkness. (Just look at last year’s theatrical horror features: The majority boast endings that range from cryptic to sorrowful to downright pitch-black.)

Outside of the zombocalypse subgenre, few modern horror tales have been able to top the sheer, perverse bleakness that characterizes the final stretch of Pet Sematary. That would be the 1983 novel by Maine’s master of the macabre, Stephen King – as well as the book’s 1989 film adaptation, which boasts a screenplay penned by King himself. Over the decades, the author has generally resisted the darkling allure of unhappy endings. At least in his novels, King tends to favor conclusions where Evil is ultimately vanquished, albeit typically in a manner that entails great sacrifice. (It’s in his short stories that King is disposed to indulge his skepticism, pessimism, and taste for utter desolation.) Pet Sematary is the exception that proves the rule: a morbid and supremely nasty piece of work that King himself purportedly regards as his most upsetting novel, one where he perhaps pushed things a little too far. And that’s coming from the man who wrote It’s notoriously icky Scene That Shall Not Be Named. There’s nothing even remotely bittersweet about Pet Sematary: It’s a meticulous character study, a primally repellent occult fable, and a deeply unsettling rumination on death and dying.

Director Mary Lambert managed to preserve that gangrenous sensibility in her 1989 film adaptation. In part, this was because Paramount Pictures didn’t expect the film to do well: The diminished scrutiny from the studio gave both her and King the freedom to go much darker than mainstream horror features typically dared at the time. Admittedly, Lambert’s Pet Sematary hasn’t aged all that well: Everything except the ghoulish makeup effects is cheap-looking, some scenes feel repetitive, and the pacing is inexcusably sluggish in spots. Still, it’s a solid and remarkably faithful adaptation, especially where the novel’s rotten, gnarly core is concerned. Notwithstanding Paramount’s expectations, Lambert’s feature proved to be a sleeper hit, and it helped cement the late 1980s through mid-1990s as a fecund period for adaptations of King’s works.

King’s brand of pulpy New England horror has been experiencing yet another renaissance over the past couple of years, with adaptations of 11.22.63, 1922, The Dark Tower, Gerald’s Game, It, and Mister Mercedes, as well as the “King universe” series Castle Rock. It’s unsurprising, then, that Paramount decided to take a 30-years-later whack at Pet Sematary, whose repulsive and despairing tone makes for a snug fit in the current landscapes of both multiplex and arthouse horror. The filmmakers that have birthed this new version of King’s tale are co-directors Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer (Absence, Starry Eyes, Holidays), with a story and screenplay credited to Matt Greenberg and Jeff Buhler, respectively. Forebodingly, the most promising item on these filmmakers’ collective résumé is probably Buhler’s script for the nascent 2008 cult classic The Midnight Meat Train. No matter: The new Pet Sematary might be a decidedly mixed bag, but it’s still a creeping, squirming, tendon-slicing bad time in all the right ways. 

Kölsch and Widmyer deviate from Lambert’s film right out the gate, by giving the viewer a flash-forward glimpse of their story’s cryptic, bloody aftermath. It’s a questionable opening flourish, but one that’s admittedly consistent with King’s penchant for dribbling ominous, omniscient-flavored forewarnings into his third-person subjective narratives. Even audiences who have not read the novel or seen Lambert’s adaptation will likely find the film’s setup familiar. The Reed family – physician Louis (Jason Clarke), homemaker Rachel (Amy Seimetz), pre-tween Ellie (Jeté Laurence), toddler Gage (Hugo and Lucas Lavoie), and Ellie’s beloved cat Church – are relocating from the bustle of Boston to sleepy small-town Maine, where Louis has recently accepted a position at a university campus clinic. From the moment that the Reeds’ station wagon pulls into the driveway of their new, perfectly quaint Yankee homestead, however, a shadow is discernible. For starters, there’s the terrifying speed with which the Orinco Petroleum tanker trucks thunder down the country road in front of their house. There’s also the pet cemetery, which Rachel and Ellie discover when they spot a silent procession of masked children reverently carrying a dog’s remains across the family’s property.

Ellie later explores this eerie burial ground, which is tucked away just behind the house in the adjacent woods. There, she runs into the family’s elderly neighbor, Jud Crandall (John Lithgow), who sharply warns her against climbing on a massive tree deadfall, and then softens to explain a little bit of the place’s history. (It turns out his own childhood dog is buried there.) In the following days, the Reeds quickly warm to Jud, a widower and lifelong local fixture, and he in turn takes a shine to Ellie’s precocious energy. The cemetery nags at Ellie’s thoughts, however, eliciting uncomfortable questions about mortality, the afterlife, and how such matters might apply to her cat. Louis favors a blunt, rationalist approach to these inquiries, but Rachel – whose own childhood was spent caring for an older sister twisted physically and mentally by the ravages of meningitis – prefers to shield their kids from such horror with a liberal application of benevolent lies.

Louis has morbid preoccupations of his own, unfortuantely. When a grievously injured auto-accident victim, Victor Pascrow (Obssa Ahmed), is rushed into the university clinic, Louis quickly ascertains that the man cannot be saved. Even though his brains are spilling out of his skull, Victor manages to sit up one last time and uses his final breath to wheeze out an enigmatic warning, calling Louis by name and admonishing that “the barrier must not be broken.” As if this encounter wasn’t harrowing enough, Victor’s gruesome shade later visits Louis in a dream, leading him to the pet cemetery and offering yet another warning, this time regarding the woods beyond the deadfall: The ground is sour. Louis is inclined to chalk it up to a trauma-induced nightmare – if not for the fact that he awakens in his bed with muddy feet.

Late one afternoon, Jud discreetly escorts Louis to an unwelcome scene: Church, stiff and bloody on the side of the road, evidently struck by one of those speeding tankers. Louis makes the fateful decision to conceal the animal’s death from Ellie, and Jud offers to help him bury Church in secret after nightfall. When the time comes, however, the older man doesn’t stop at the pet cemetery, but instead leads Louis over the deadfall, through a swamp, and up a set of ancient hewn stairs to a stony plateau. There, tiny cairns mark what is self-evidently sacred ground. “What are we doing here, Jud?” Louis demands. “We’re burying your daughter’s cat,” is the matter-of-fact but evasive reply. Jud insists that Louis must dig Church’s grave in the thin, rocky soil himself – and then build the cairn as well. Louis does so, and the men return home in silence, with Jud extracting a final promise to keep their nocturnal mission a secret.

What unfolds the following day will be unsurprising to the canny viewer, but it’s still horribly unsettling. Church comes back: disheveled, stiff-limbed, and cockeyed. “Church, you stink!” Ellie exclaims, but whatever is wrong with the girl’s pet goes way beyond the stench of the grave. The animal has become furtive, irritable, and simply off in some elusive but undeniable way. Louis demands an explanation from Jud, who reveals that the place they interred Church is a forgotten Mi’kmaq burial ground, a secret place known only to a handful of locals. Whatever is buried there returns, a phenomenon that Jud witnessed with his own childhood dog – before his father put a bullet into the animal for a second time. Which begs the question: Why the hell did Jud think it was a good idea to bury Church in such a place? Whatever the problems with Buhler’s screenplay – and it has plenty – this Pet Sematary alludes to the dark, otherworldly nudges from King's novel that Lambert’s film elided: “That place … all at once it gets hold of you … and you make up the sweetest-smelling reasons in the world.” This sets the stage for a much more profound tragedy for the Reeds, as well as a downward spiral into blasphemous evil that will haunt many a viewer – especially those with children.

The 1989 film was often plodding and raggedy – the inclusion of the subplot about Rachel’s dead sister was a fruitless miscalculation that the new adaptation repeats and amplifies into a full-blown sub-Insisious haunting – but King’s screenplay possessed something invaluable that Buhler’s script lacks. Namely, the novel’s rich, gradually escalating atmosphere of inescapable doom. Plot points in Pet Sematary 2019 unspool with a kind of dutiful obligation, absent the immersive illusion of cause and effect. It’s a fine distinction, but one that is essential in a story that hinges on the viewer accepting the story’s slow-motion supernatural tragedy. Some of this inelegance is attributable to the substantial changes that Buhler makes to the novel’s plot, and some of it is due to subtler shifts in emphasis. Louis is no longer the only point-of-view character, which makes it difficult for the film to steep in the surrogate father-son relationship the develops between Louis and Jud – a bond that forms the emotional spine of the novel's story. However, the screenplay doesn’t deserve all the blame here. Kölsch and Widmyer seem eager to rush negligently through the story’s first act, so impatient to get to the grave-robbing and grief-wracked madness that they neglect the slow burn. It doesn’t help that Lithgow seems oddly miscast; certainly, he doesn’t have Fred Gwynne’s ease and credibility in the role of a hard-bitten Maine old-timer. (The late Gwynne nailed the region’s characteristic “ayuhs” better than any other actor in any King adaptation.) Lithgow’s performance just feels too soggy and anxious, a poor fit for a character that demands a certain oaken steadiness.

There are plenty of other missteps in this iteration of Pet Sematary. Victor’s apparition never becomes the literally haunting presence he was in the novel or the 1989 film – there’s that whiff of obligatory inclusion again – and Kölsch and Widmyer indulge in one too many winking, sadistic callbacks to the previous adaptation. Morsels of more expansive world-building are sprinkled into the film – such as those creepy masked kids glimpsed at the beginning, or a hulking, shadowy presence in the swamp that may or may not be an evil Algonquin spirit – but these never result in anything other than the most negligible payoff. 

Perhaps it’s for the best: Pet Sematary works precisely because it’s an intimate, domestic story, one concerned with universal experiences as seen through an intensely personal lens. Kölsch and Widmyer’s version of the tale might be clunky in terms of storytelling, but it still handily conveys that fundamental stench of wrongness that undergirds King’s novel. The revisions that Buhler makes to the plot don’t necessarily result in a story that’s “better” or “worse,” just one with different shadings to its horror. What the 1989 screenplay left somewhat mysterious, the 2019 film underlines in hellfire. What was conceptually grotesque 30 years ago is now more explicitly revolting, thanks to some truly unnerving makeup and visual effects. Kölsch and Widmyer never quite replicate the hideous (if cheesy) transgressiveness of Lambert’s film, but they make a respectable go at it – capping things off with a new ending that feels delightfully appalling for a multiplex horror feature.

Regardless, it’s undeniable that the new Pet Sematary is a more formally polished film than its forebear. The shots composed by the directors and cinematographer Laurie Rose are more striking, and the production design by Todd Cherniawsky is more lavish and redolent. Some of this is simply attributable to the film being a $20 million production in 2019, but Kölsch and Widmyer don’t approach the material with mercenary dispassion. They’re self-evidently besotted with King’s disturbing vision, and they often find ways to put an artful yet creepy spin on the genre’s visual and narrative conventions. Indeed, some of the feature’s more self-consciously fakey effects – a creeping white mist straight out of a classic Universal monster movie or an obviously green-screened nocturnal sky roiling with thunderheads – serve to position the film within a slightly older and scruffier cinematic context.

Among the adult performers, the perpetually undervalued Seimetz acquits herself most effectively, although even in its expanded and more phantasmagorical form, Rachel’s subplot still feels somewhat unnecessary. (One can envision a more resonant version of said subplot if the novel were adapted into a limited series and Rachel given her own stand-alone episode.) It’s the 10-year-old Laurence who runs away with the film, however, in a role that requires her to be endearing but a little uneasy, and then later oozing with overripe sweetness – like candied fruit that’s begun to ferment into mold-furred mush.

There’s plenty of little things in this Pet Sematary that linger: that gargantuan deadfall of bone-white trees, more intimidating here than in the novel; the twilit aerial shots of the blue-gray forest crown, more primeval than seems possible for New England (the film was actually shot in Quebec); even the way that zombie Church’s droopy, unblinking eyes never quite seem to follow each other. There’s a moment late in the film when an undead abomination launches into a brief spasmodic frenzy that’s so chilling it’s guaranteed to squat in a corner of the viewer’s subconscious for years. These details notwithstanding, however, it’s the ineffable darkness at the heart of the story that makes Pet Sematary worth revisiting, no matter how imperfect its form. It’s the same darkness that once made King shudder and file his manuscript away, fearful that he had dug too deeply into the festering bowels of love – love for a pet, a child, a partner, or whoever might compel one to do the unthinkable.

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Mercy Black'.
April 2, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

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

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

Mercy Black

2019 / USA / 88 min. / Dir. by Owen Egerton / Premiered online on Mar. 31, 2019

Writer-director Owen Egerton’s Mercy Black brazenly and tastelessly repurposes the real-world 2014 Slender Man stabbing for its central conceit. Unlike last year’s unrelated and jaw-droppingly inept Slender Man, however, Mercy Black is at least a functional work of cinema. Indefensibly drab and dull, but functional. By dropping the film just before April Fool’s Day with no warning, Netflix was perhaps hoping for a viral hit, but there’s little that distinguishes Mercy Black from seemingly countless ghost stories featuring creepy kids and rote jump-scares. Lead performer Marina Hess does her best to breathe some life into this tale of a former juvenile perpetrator who is struggling to re-enter society – and begins to suspect that the bogeyman she created as a child may have taken on a life of its own. There is some Candyman-adjacent potential in Mercy Black, but Egerton clings to the tiresome aesthetics and rhythms that presently dominate the genre, even as he’s chaotically cramming together ambiguous and seemingly contradictory plot twists. Rating: C- [Now available to stream exclusively on Netflix.]

Tags: VOD Roundups Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'The Mustang'.
March 28, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

I Watched You Suffer a Dull, Aching Pain

2019 / France, USA / 96 min. / Dir. by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre / Opened in select cities on March 15, 2019; locally on March 29, 2019

On paper, the plot of The Mustang – the lyrical, touching, and hard-bitten debut feature from writer-director Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre – seems like fodder for an orthodoxly heartwarming breed of American-indie cinema. (Indeed, The Mustang premiered not in Clermont-Tonnerre’s native France but at the Sundance Film Festival, and was developed in the creative laboratories at the fest’s parent Sundance Institute.) Roman Coleman (Matthias Schoenaerts) is a convicted felon, currently serving out a prolonged prison sentence in an unspecified Western state. Perpetually oscillating between seething rage and slump-shouldered silence, he’s the dictionary definition of antisocial.  An early scene with a prison psychologist (Connie Britton, in a glorified cameo) establishes that Roman has routinely been moved in and out of isolation for various violent infractions. “I’m not good with people,” he admits, squinting impatiently. It’s perhaps for this reason – plus some Hail Mary exasperation – that the psychologist slots him into a maintenance job in an unusual federal rehabilitation program. Under the purview of the Bureau of Land Management, select inmates assist with the taming of captured wild horses for eventual auction to law-enforcement agencies and other buyers.

Within the first 15 minutes or so of The Mustang, most viewers will have figured out where this story is headed. Although initially assigned to a shit-shoveling detail, the reluctant Roman is eventually paired up with a particularly headstrong mustang, which he dubs Marquis. The two gradually establish a tenuous bond that offers Roman’s troubled soul the tantalizing possibility of spiritual absolution. Given the wretched conditions inside the prison – which is presently simmering with racial tensions and a drug-trafficking turf war – as well as Roman’s icy, stunted relationship with his pregnant daughter, Martha (Blockers’ Gideon Adlon), the dusty little corral where the convict trains his horse feels like a relative sanctuary. These sessions are not without their challenges, however, between Roman’s volatile temper and the mustang’s almost insolent refusal to even acknowledge commands, let alone accept a saddle and rider.

It’s the stuff of trite but serviceable indie drama, right down to the feisty fellow convict (Jason Mitchell) who shows Roman the (literal) ropes, and the grizzled veteran trainer (Bruce Dern) who offers the protagonist both caustic reproach and folksy reassurance. However, two things serve to sharply distinguish The Mustang from similar films about an unlikely animal-human connection. First is the screenplay – co-written by the director, Mona Fastvold, and Brock Normal Brock – which trades in familiar archetypes but never leans on them excessively for color. Indeed, The Mustang is a remarkably sparing film, dialogue-wise, preferring to allow the bulked-up Schoenaerts’ marvelously sensitive performance to do the emotional heavy lifting. Roman might be a reticent loner, but he’s also the sort of man who wears his surface-level feelings on his sleeve, despite himself. This obligates Schoenaerts to convey bold strokes of emotion with the sort of non-verbal acting that it is at once forceful and fettered, and the actor rises to the occasion splendidly.

De Clermont-Tonnerre and her co-scripters are keenly attuned to how easily their scenario could slip into unearned, maudlin cliché, and their approach to Roman’s arc is sagely and refreshingly restrained. Contrary to what one might glean from a nickel summary of the plot, The Mustang doesn’t fully embrace the notion that taming Marquis offers Roman a chance for a transformative redemption. There’s little sense that freedom – or, at least, an eventual return to the world outside the prison walls – holds much allure for Roman, who seems to regard his physical confinement as a justified penance for his crimes. When the viewer ultimately learns exactly what offense landed him in prison, it proves to be shocking in both its viciousness and its awful banality. During a tense visiting-room conversation with his daughter, Roman briefly (and naïvely) seems to indulge the idea that breaking a mustang will somehow atone for or counter-balance his heavy karmic burden. Fortunately, the film slaps this down, and slaps it down hard – not with lugubrious miserabilism, but stony realism. There’s no un-doing all the terrible things Roman has done, and a few weeks of one-on-one time with a wild animal isn’t going to work some profound change on his deeply etched patterns of behavior.

This kind of hard-nosed pragmatism is consistently employed to gently rein in the story’s drama, preventing it from straying into florid hyperbole or simplistic tidiness. Indeed, The Mustang’s glib marketing tagline – “Untamed Souls. Kindred Spirits.” – is almost hilariously off-the-mark when one considers the actual content of the film. The horse’s wild nature is not used to re-cast Roman’s rage and penchant for violence as admirable traits in the cowboy idiom. If anything, Marquis’ untamed animal purity makes for an unflattering contrast with the convict, who is, at this point in his life, a perhaps hopelessly maladjusted ball of toxic impulses. What Marquis does offer to Roman, however, is a means to discover within himself some modest capacity for compassion and selflessness. “Empathy” is often used as little more than an empty, moralistic buzzword these days, but that doesn’t diminish the essential psychological epiphany that it denotes: looking into the eyes of another individual – human or animal – and recognizing that the pain glimpsed within is the same as one’s own pain. In the confines of the little prison corral, Roman grows attuned to Marquis’ fear, fury, and suffering, and it wounds him in a way that he hasn’t permitted himself to be wounded before. (Or, at least, not in a long, long time.)

The second way in which The Mustang sets itself apart is its downright cinematic loveliness. In terms of its subject matter and its dust-caked realism, the film perhaps inevitably invites comparison’s to last year's superb character study from director Chloé Zhao, The Rider. However, although Zhao was attuned to the mythic resonance of that film’s South Dakota landscapes, her feature unequivocally embraced a stripped-down verité look. In contrast, de Clermont-Tonne and cinematographer Ruben Impens – who so fantastically captured the ugly modernist spaces of the French-Belgian horror feature Raw (2016) – amplify the poetic in The Mustang’s visual vocabulary.

Actor-turned-director de Clermont-Tonne previously appeared in painter-turned-director Julian Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (2007), and although it’s probably a stretch to suggest that the feature was formative for her as a filmmaker, it’s undeniable that The Mustang favors a Schnabel-like impressionism. One can discern it in de Clermont-Tonne’s affinity for gauzy shallow focus and tight, handheld closeups; in the purposely chaotic editing that Géraldine Mangenot at times employs to emphasize terror and confusion; and in the film’s evocative establishing shots, which serve as both pointed metaphors and almost abstract meditative images. Perhaps most gratifyingly, the director and her crew often swerve away from the expected rhythms of the indie drama – smash-cutting to the aftermath of an event rather than lingering on it, for example, or winnowing the hackneyed “training montage” down into a handful of lean, expressive glimpses and then scattering them sparsely throughout the narrative. (There is more than a little Terrence Malick in de Clermont-Tonne’s style as well – a point reinforced by a Days of Heaven-evoking voice-over monologue that closes the film.)

Overall, it’s a lovely work, aesthetically speaking, and a potent reminder that the sort of grainy, washed-out digital photography that The Mustang employs needn’t be synonymous with ugliness. It’s also a fitting look for a film that manages to be at once a gritty character study and an elegiac tone poem. The adroit way that de Clermont-Tonne syncretizes these two aspects of her feature, such that they resemble a rider and a steed working in wordless harmony, is the most intricate achievement in an exceedingly accomplished debut.

Rating: B+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

A still from 'Gloria Bell'.
March 24, 2019
By Joshua Ray

Lost in Translation

2019 / Chile, USA / 102 min. / Dir. by Sebastián Lelio / Opened in select cities March 8, 2019; locally on March 22, 2019

Whether art should be evaluated on its own merits and removed from its cultural context or makers’ intentions is a question that has persisted throughout the history of criticism. That conundrum won’t be solved here — countless think pieces comparing remakes, sequels, and/or cinematic universes are probably being written right now — but Sebastián Lelio’s Gloria Bell, an American transposition of the director’s earlier Chilean feature Gloria (2013), proves that the matter is particularly thorny.

When a directors choose to remake their own material, they render both versions almost impossible to evaluate sans context. What is the purpose of the update? How do the two works compare? What conversation are they having with each other? Should those questions even be asked? Alfred Hitchcock’s two versions of The Man Who Knew Too Much almost avoid the issue: His 1956 update uses mere germs of the ideas from the 1934 original, turning his pair of films into a case study in artistic and cultural development. Michael Haneke refreshed his 1997 Austrian provocation, Funny Games, remaking it shot-for-shot for American audiences in 2008 and adding yet another meta-textual layer to further implicate U.S. viewers as the ultimate spectators of screen mayhem. 

Unlike Haneke’s self-reflexive remake, Gloria Bell is not a trip down a condescending rabbit hole. However, it does beg the question: Why? Lelio’s latest is not a shot-for-shot remake, but it does use structure, dialogue, and shot set-ups similar to those of the original, even deploying comparable editing within analogous scenes. If anything, the film is actually closer to a band covering their own earlier material for a new fan base, albeit with more money to burn and new knobs with which they can fiddle. This is not to say that the new film is inherently wrong-headed, as Gloria Bell is a largely enjoyable facsimile, but who wouldn’t press play on New Order’s original “Temptation” over “Temptation ’87”? It’s the same old song, but the nuance is gone — or, at least, a new glossy veneer has been applied, obscuring a charming roughness. 

Because it shares virtually the same script as the first Gloria, the narrative is light on plot, turning on just a few incidents to realize a portrait of self-actualization in the midst of ennui. Gloria Bell (Julianne Moore) is a 50-something divorcée with two millennial children (Michael Cera and Alanna Ubach). Between a mundane office job and living alone in an apartment beneath her landlord’s explosive son, she attends singles-only dance mixers. “I like to dance,” she shouts to a potential mate over the booming disco music. She finds herself taken with a retired naval officer, Arnold (John Turturro), who now runs a theme park complete with a paintball war zone to which Gloria takes a particular liking. (Take notice that “Chekhov's gun” also applies to paintball.) 

Arnold, divorced for just one year now, also has two children, but he’s not as willing to share in his family life as Gloria is with hers. That point of contention comes to a head during Gloria’s family dinner party, when Arnold comes face-to-face with her former husband, Dustin (Brad Garrett). The ensuing (non-)confrontation forces Gloria to examine her decisions and self-worth, with the help of a bag of pot her upstairs neighbor accidentally leaves behind. She waffles back and forth about her relationship with the off-kilter Arnold, before he ultimately decides their fate during a Las Vegas trip. 

The opening zoom shot into Gloria’s neon-lit face among the crowd of middle-aged partygoers reveals not only the character’s timidity in the sea of strangers, but also that Lelio is keen on staying rooted in his protagonist’s experience and her quest for romantic fulfillment. In both versions, the loose camera stays close to the central figure — forcing a viewer’s empathy with an all-too-underrepresented type. However, Lelio has also changed as a director over the years since the original Gloria’s release, winning a Best Foreign-Language Film Oscar in 2018 for A Fantastic Woman and releasing his first English-language film, Disobedience, that same year. To that end, the relative visual austerity of Gloria in 2013 has been alternatively supplanted in the update by the Almodóvarian color-flooding of Woman and the art-house polish of Disobedience

Gloria Bell does contain gorgeous evocations of its Los Angeles setting, with the radiant Moore basking in the always-sunny city’s ambient glow, but all that visual lacquering begins to read as reverence for an actor rather than observation of a character. Paulina García, a legendary Chilean actor and winner of the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2013 Berlin International Film Festival for the first Gloria, played the character as a stoic charmer who buries her strife until it ultimately erupts. Moore, however, is a Movie Star (probably the best of her kind), and here she is as effervescent as she’s ever been. Although she performs the woman as sometimes doddering and well meaning, there is nevertheless a bright resiliency that always shines through, even when the actor deploys her trademark tear-filled face-crack in a late scene.

Other modifications work to reconfigure the experience. A shimmery score by Matthew Herbert (who also composed strikingly similar music for Woman and Disobedience) replaces the strictly diegetic soundscape of the original. Two additional female characters are shoehorned in — Gloria’s mother (Holland Taylor) and her close work friend (Barbara Sukowa) — allowing for a couple of trite girl-power conversations to take place. The most monumental shift is in Turturro’s performance as Gloria’s romantic interest. The actor is capable of the disarming charm Sergio Hernández brought to that character before, but Turturro’s low-key, antisocial turn makes this film’s two leads’ on-again/off-again relationship less credible, Gloria’s desperation greater, and their ultimate uncoupling a relief instead of a heartbreak. 

Early in their courtship, Gloria brings Arnold to a double date with her best friend (Rita Wilson) and her husband (Chris Mulkey). A minor political disagreement about gun ownership causes the two women to exchange knowing glances about Arnold’s right-leaning views. It’s a beat absent from the original that’s emblematic of Lelio’s increasing penchant for telegraphing and audience hand-holding. Gloria Bell is filled with minor tweaks like these — the handling of Arnold’s shapewear for laughs is another — that come across as if an American studio was handing Lelio notes on his original to make the film more palatable for a mass audience. Nevertheless, both Glorias go down like glasses of fine wine, but one’s enjoyment is completely dependent on whether the preference is for a full-bodied red or a sweet white. 

Rating: B-

Tags: Reviews Joshua Ray

A still from 'Us'.
March 21, 2019
By Andrew Wyatt

Double Trouble

2019 / USA / 116 min. / Dir. by Jordan Peele / Opens in wide release on March 22, 2019

Early in Gaspar Noé’s recent feature Climax, the notorious French provocateur literally puts his cinematic influences on display. On an old-school CRT television, ambitious young dancers speak frankly of their hopes and dreams in snippets plucked from a series of Real World-style audition tapes, ca. 1996. However, the viewer’s eye is irresistibly drawn to what lies outside the TV screen: stacks of VHS tapes, each emblazoned with a title that signals one of Noé’s inspirations. In contrast to the MTV français banalities on display in the interview footage, these titles comprise a catalog of turmoil, terror, and transgression: “Un Chien Andalou” (1929); Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975); Suspiria (1977); Zombi 2 (1979); Possession (1980); Angst (1983); and numerous others. Before the narrative proper has even begun, Noé cheekily establishes a tension between the canned positivity that his characters project and the sordid madness that lurks at the film’s periphery, waiting to pounce.

In what can only be presumed to be uncanny meta-cinema coincidence, writer-director Jordan Peele uses an almost identical device in the prologue to his eagerly anticipated sophomore feature, Us. On a living-room television, retro commercials establish the year as 1986. The content of those advertisements will prove to be significant to the film’s plot, but, once again, it’s the surrounding production design that ensnares the viewer’s attention. Arranged on the entertainment center shelves are video cassettes that include The Right Stuff (1983), The Goonies (1985), and – most salient to the story and themes of Us – Douglas Cheek’s cult horror-satire C.H.U.D. (1984). Elsewhere, Peele drops in overt references to Jaws (1975), Home Alone (1991), and John Landis’ legendary music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” (1983). Subtler allusions abound to The Shining (1980), The Lost Boys (1987), Funny Games (1997), The Sixth Sense (1999), and “New French Extremity” landmarks like Inside (2007) and Martyrs (2008).

Peele is effusive and unapologetic about his cinephilia, which tends to skew post-Jaws, and about the way that his personal obsessions have aided his rapid ascent to contemporary genre filmmaking’s highest ranks. Considering the director’s avowed fanboyish inclinations, what’s most impressive about Peele’s features – in his galvanic Oscar-winning debut Get Out (2017) and now in Us – is that they never scan as hollow indices of cinematic references, or even as reverent homages. They are ferociously original nightmares: built on a scaffolding of cult-horror fandom and blockbuster (and Blockbuster) history, but conveying a cynical, fractured, and morbidly hilarious spin on the American experience. 

Apart from its sheer craft, Get Out resonated to a great degree because of the perceived novelty of is vision and voice. It was certainly not the first instance in which an African-American artist transmuted deeply felt African-American anxieties into cinematic horror, but it was arguably the most mainstream feature to do so in such a piercing fashion. (Rusty Cundieff’s unexpectedly provocative Tales from the Hood achieves a similar trenchancy, but that 1995 anthology remains something of an underseen curio, especially among white horror aficionados.) Us doesn’t have Get Out’s frank post-Obama racial acerbity, although being a horror feature by a black filmmaker with a black lead cast, it unsurprisingly includes some incisive racial subtext. However, the new film does share with Peele’s debut a daft and profoundly pessimistic view of America. Both features have sci-fi-flavored backstories that are logistically ludicrous, but also oddly credible from a cultural and psychological angle. With the caveat that sweeping metaphors about auteurs based on just two films are always provisional, Peele’s features are like the faerie changelings swapped for human infants in folk tales. They aren’t perfectly accurate reflections of reality, but their horror stems from their uncanny, slantwise resemblance to reality, from the deep cuts inflicted by their perverse exaggerations.

Us is itself proximally rooted in this terror of uncanny resemblance. It is part of a rich tradition of doppelgänger horror that encompasses works ranging from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) to Sisters (1973) to Enemy (2013). (To say nothing of the prevalence of twins, doubles, and fetches in Vertigo [1959], Persona [1966], Lost Highway [1997], and many other macabre masterworks from a variety of genres.) If there is a direct antecedent to Peele’s latest film, however, it is – by the director's own admission  – the 1960 Twilight Zone episode “Mirror Image,” in which Vera Miles portrays a woman haunted by a double who mimics her movements. Unlike many episodes in Rod Serling’s classic series, “Mirror Image” is enigmatic rather than heavy-handed, but it shares with Peele’s more explicitly allegorical film the motifs of malicious replacement and imitative action. Us also possess a certain wry, high-concept audacity that feels of a piece with The Twilight Zone – although tonally the film is closer kin to Serling’s sister anthology series Night Gallery and George Romero’s Tales from the Darkside. To this, Peele adds the apocalyptic elements of modern zombie fiction, and the result is a story that feels equal parts resonant, fascinating, and preposterous.

In the film’s 1986-set prologue, a little girl who is eventually revealed to be Adelaide Wilson (Madison Curry) visits the Santa Cruz, Calif., boardwalk with her mother and father (Anna Diop and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). Quarrelsome and distracted, Adelaide’s parents do not notice when she wanders away to the beach, and then into an apparently deserted hall-of-mirrors attraction. Inside, she encounters another little girl who appears to be her exact double – down to the “Thriller” T-shirt her father just won for her at a carnival game. Peele does not show exactly what befalls little Adelaide when she encounters this doppelgänger, but it’s clear that the incident is disturbing and traumatic, driving the girl’s parents further apart and necessitating therapy under the guidance of a child psychologist (Napiera Groves). The doctor suggests creative expression as a means for Adelaide to process her repressed trauma, and it is ultimately ballet that ends up sustaining the girl through the ensuing years.

However, the past is not so easily buried, as the adult Adelaide (Lupita Nyong’o) eventually discovers. Now married to good-natured goofball Gabe (Winston Duke) and a mother to adolescent Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and preteen Jason (Evan Alex), Adelaide is presently uneasy about a family holiday to Santa Cruz. Her parents have passed away, and her former childhood home now serves as a seasonal vacation residence for her family. However, that inexplicable funhouse encounter so long ago continues to haunt Adelaide, and she is accordingly alarmed when Gabe suggests a visit to the boardwalk. She reluctantly agrees out of deference to her husband’s pleas, as well as politeness to their wealthier white friends, the Tylers: Kitty (Elisabeth Moss), Josh (Tim Heidecker), and twin girls Becca and Lindsey (Cali and Noelle Sheldon). Adelaide remains on edge, a state exacerbated by a succession of weird omens: eerily familiar faces, portentous numbers, and unlikely synchronicities.

After a brief scare on the beach – Jason wanders away, sending Adelaide into a panic – the family hastily returns to the summer house. Later that night, they make an unnerving discovery: A mysterious family of four is standing in their driveway, mute and motionless. Clad identically in red jumpsuits, sandals, and right-hand leather gloves, these figures seem creepy rather than overtly dangerous – at least until Gabe puts on his alpha-papa pants and threatens them. Whereupon the interlopers abruptly burst into the house and hold the Wilsons hostage in their living room, menacing them with large, golden pairs of scissors. It’s at this point that the baffling reality of the situation becomes apparent: The invaders are the Wilsons’ doppelgängers, each one a twisted reflection of a family member. (The film’s performers play both the originals and the doubles.)

Grunting, wailing, and chittering like animals, the doubles don’t speak, save for Adelaide’s twin, Red. In a croaking, wheezing voice that seems comical at first – before slowly mutating into terrifying – Red explains her history in halting, fairy-tale terms. She describes herself as a pitiable shadow, forced to crawl in the darkness below while her twin was allowed to walk in the light. The doppelgängers are damned to be puppets, insipidly miming the actions of their counterparts but lacking any agency of their own. When Adelaide married Gabe and gave birth to Zora and Jason, Red was obliged to couple with Abraham and to spawn Umbrae and Pluto. Now, however, things have changed: Red speaks of an “Untethering,” an uprising in which the doubles will sever this one-way spiritual connection – by killing their originals. Fortunately, Red is feeling generous, in a sadistic sort of way: The Wilsons will be given a sporting chance to fight back.

So begins a run-and-gun waking nightmare in which the Wilsons pair off to confront their malevolent doubles, only to regroup and spilt up again as the evening’s horrors unfold. Over the next 24 hours or so, the full, shocking extent of the Untethering – which goes way, way beyond one family – becomes dreadfully apparent. However, the bedrock survival-horror aspects of Us remain consistent, even as the science-fiction strangeness spirals into some truly outlandish, hallucinatory territory. The same could be said of Get Out, to an extent. If that film has a nagging flaw, it’s the third-act indulgence of stock Blumhouse survival-horror beats, in contrast to the novelty of the film’s wild, paranoid tone and razor-sharp social critiques. Still, Peele’s debut had its share of memorable images and motifs – that clinking teaspoon! – and Us turns that facility for indelible visuals up to 11.

The director and production designer Ruth De Jong deliver a disorienting combination of the familiar and the surreal. It’s an approach that eschews digital unreality for a dreamlike eccentricity that shades into Kubrick and Tarkovsky without ever ditching its multiplex flash. At one point, Adelaide stumbles her way into a secret underground corridor, which is tiled in institutional white and swarming with live rabbits. Within the bounds of the film’s universe, there is a sort-of explanation for this place, but the imagery has less to do with plausibility than with evoking shivers. The efforts of cinematographer Mike Gioulakis, who lensed It Follows (2014) and the recent Glass, are less consistent. He and Peele make cunning use of shallow focus, wide shots, and split-diopter effects, finding novel ways to convey familiar horror situations. The lighting in some scenes works splendidly – the eerie, slightly greasy blues of the funhouse sequences are pure black magic – but elsewhere Gioulakis leans artlessly on shadowy murk that is more obscuring than atmospheric.

Us is every inch a sophomore feature: ambitious, inspired, and at times ungainly. Scene to scene, the film doesn’t click together quite as well Get Out. This is partly because the writer-director is here committed to a more eccentric mythology, and as a result the new film isn’t as structurally disciplined or self-contained as its predecessor. (Story-wise, the entirety of Get Out is analogous to the first act in Us.) Editor Nicholas Monsour, who cut the Peele-co-scripted comedy Keanu (2016), also makes his share of missteps. There are some wonderfully assembled sequences in Us – including a climactic hand-to-hand duel that is spectacularly cross-cut with two different ballet routines – but also some distractingly jarring scene transitions.

The supporting performances are all solid, particularly Duke as a dorky middle-class dad who is a little insecure about his second-in-command standing, albeit in the mildest and most endearing way. Moss gets the opportunity to play against type as a vapid, prickly, faintly dissatisfied suburbanite, the sort of woman who says “vodka o’clock” unironically. However, the film unambiguously belongs to N’yongo, who essentially fills both the lead protagonist and the lead antagoist roles. Initially, Peele’s screenplay doesn’t afford Adelaide much of an interior life beyond her bottled-up trauma – which comes spurting out in tearful gouts once the doppelgängers appear – and her generic Mama Bear protectiveness, but N’yongo sells those with every ounce of her being. Eventually, as the film’s backstory comes into sharper focus and the final twists snap into place, Adelaide (and Red) become much more intriguing characters. Like The Sixth Sense, Oldboy (2003), and Shutter Island (2010), it’s the sort of film that will reward multiple viewings, demanding close attention to the nuances of the lead actor’s performance.

Considering Get Out’s success as both a mainstream box-office hit and a seismic force in the cultural conversation, it’s perhaps inevitable that some viewers are going to walk away baffled and disappointed by Us. It’s certainly weirder, clumsier, and cagier than Peele’s directorial debut. It also feels somehow less urgent and less pointed, its metaphorical meanings more expansive and open to interpretation. Granted, threads of racial consciousness are undeniably woven into Us. They can be discerned in the film's sensitivity to the way that racist inclinations can be concealed but not eliminated by a veneer of political correctness, or the way that the white bourgeoisie subtly bigfoot their aspirational black counterparts. However, Peele’s latest is just as concerned with class, labor, violence, and ignorance as it is with race, not to mention more personal, psychological themes such as trauma and guilt. Lest any viewer think that the director has blunted his blade now that he has an Oscar on his shelf, Red underlines the wokeness that lurks beneath Peele’s midnight-movie gleefulness. When asked who she and her fellow doppelgängers are, she replies with a rictus grin: “We’re Americans.”

Rating: B

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

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

Revisiting the Cinematic Landmarks of 1969

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

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

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

By Robert Garrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Golden Anniversaries

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

The Highs and Lows at the Premiere Documentary Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tags: Festivals Cait Lore

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

I Love the 90s

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt