Tikkun

 

Cast: Aharon Traitel, Khalifa Natour, Riki Blich, Gur Sheinberg

Director: Avishai Sivan

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona 


The notion of carnal desire as spiritual death is central to many religious systems, and this is especially true of fundamental Judaism; wherein ritual, tradition, and civic responsibilities are at odds with the temptations of secularized society.  Avishai Sivan's hauntingly enigmatic second feature, Tikkun, may be set in contemporary Israel, but it feels like it's taking place in some past memory, or perhaps more appropriately, inside that place where the divine and finite meet. In some ways, the film is both a detached critique of strict Hasidic Judaism as well an ambiguous distillation of the mysteries of faith and intellect. Above all, Tikkun is that rare film which completely immerses the viewer inside it's strange tonal grasp while never fully allowing one to grow accustom to it's elusive rhythms. 

Haim-Aaron (first time actor Aharon Traitel) is an Orthodox yeshiva student who spends all of his time dutifully studying the Torah, enduring sleepless nights at his desk, and fasting in repentance after the slightest infraction. After seeing an attractive woman in passing one day, he finds himself physically aroused while taking a shower; a sequence which Sivan plays out in an extended long shot. The young man seems baffled by the sight of his own erect penis before being knocked over by a full blast of hot water, leading to his eventual death. His panic-stricken mother (Riki Blich) calls the paramedics, who spend 40 minutes trying to revive him before he's resurrected by his kosher butcher father (Khalifa Natour). This near-death experience sets in motion a series of changes within Haim-Aaron upon his recovery; including sleeping during the day while taking long walks at night, being able to see without his glasses, refusing to eat meat, and being drawn to fulfilling his sexual desires.

Shot in gorgeous black-and-white with ominous sound design and disorienting stretches of dream logic, Tikkun draws on the power of contradictory elements. Both male and female genitalia are captured in long takes without judgement or titillation, and a scene set at a brothel where Haim-Aaaron attempts to get to know a prostitute before she tosses him out in annoyance reveals Sivan's interest in how fundamental communities create stunted views of human sexuality. On the other hand, Haim-Aaaron remains a cipher; a seemingly pious man struggling with his faith and these newfound bodily urges, which eradicates the audience's indictment of religion as the sole problem. Crucially, Tikkun is not necessarily dismissing Orthodox Judaism full stop, but rather, simply presenting the outcome of suppressing our natural desires when placed inside a certain context.

Languidly paced with sparse dialogue and little in the way of authorial hand-holding, Sivan's picture will likely be praised and criticized accordingly based on one's patience with this kind of detached aesthetic. It's the kind of film which lingers in the mind; flowing at its own mysterious and uncompromising pace, and it's tough to deny the director's gifts at combining Kafka-esque black comedy with the threat of violence (both divine and human), seen most vividly in several dream sequences involving attacking alligators and knife attacks which play like ambient horror montages. No matter what allegorical connections are ultimately formed about the link between sexuality, death, faith, and fundamentalism, there's something about Tikkun which hangs just outside our ability to grasp-- kind of like religious mysticism itself--encouraging us to look deeper and think differently. 

In a Valley of Violence

 

Cast: Ethan Hawke, Taissa Farmiga, James Ransone, Karen Gillan, John Travolta

Director: Ti West

Running time: 1 hour 43 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


If we've learned anything from disenfranchised loners with a long history of brutal killing streaks, you best not fuck with a man's dog. The poor bastards laid waste by Keanu Reeve's head wounds throughout the vigilante action thriller John Wick didn't heed such warnings, and apparently, there's room for small town bumpkins to make similar errors in writer-director Ti West's latest film, In a Valley of Violence. Of course, Ethan Hawke's mysterious drifter and his adorable traveling canine aren't looking for trouble, but as these types of things often go, trouble finds them, and all will not end well for those seeking to harm an innocent animal.

West has always been interested in the tenuous line between artificiality and realism, and this tension, seen in films such as House of the Devil and The Inkeepers, has made him one of the more compelling young genre filmmakers in recent years. Mostly known as a horror director, West has an uncanny ability for utilizing pastiche as a way for opening up the authenticity of his characters; in a way, stock tropes are a jumping off point for emotional and psychological concerns. 2014's The Sacrament was his first film to abandon playful genre deconstruction for an outright stab at grisly realism by way of faux-documentary, but it felt heavy-handed in a way his previous work had not.

With In a Valley of Violence, West returns to pastiche; this time under the guise of a Spaghetti Western, and the results are unmistakably idiosyncratic. Using traditional archetypes--the lonely drifter, the hot shot gunslinger, the incredulous sheriff, the plucky love interest, etc--West doesn't so much subvert the genre here as gently honor it while making it his own. He's clearly not compelled by plot (the pacing is relaxed and measured), and the handful of violent scenes are staged economically rather than in bombastic fashion. In fact, West seems most intrigued by what happens after archetype is stripped away, reveling in the emotional and psychological effects wrought by the actions of the characters.

Ethan Hawke stars as Paul, the drifter stumbling into the nearly deserted town with cute dog in tow. He's greeted by the grizzled U.S. Marshall (John Travolta), unhinged gunslinger Gilly (James Ransone), naive but tenacious hotel maid Marry Anne (Taissa Farmiga) and her flighty older sister, Ellen (Karen Gillan). Gilly has a rag-tag group of cronies, but otherwise, the town seems uninhabited, save for the ornery bartender and an elderly shopkeeper. Paul gets into an altercation with Gilly, embarrasses him in front of the town, and impresses plucky Mary Anne, who hopes to leave her monotonous life behind. Naturally, Paul is simply "passing through", but his decision to strike back after Gilly causes bodily harm to his dog, sets in motion a cycle of violence which inevitably leads to a blood-soaked climax.

In A Valley of Violence often plays like a sly response to the kind of Quentin Tarantino-inspired pastiche of genre that we've come to expect. Though there's plenty of quirky humor and anachronistic performances on display here, West is never completely winking at the material, and the violence, such as it is, is never made to look cool. Instead, the characters slowly emerge as bumbling, ordinary people thrust into a harsh and unforgiving landscape. West skillfully juggles tonality here-- Hawke's reserved seriousness is placed alongside the slapstick banter of Mary Anne and Ellen, the horrific sense of dread during a campground sequence involving the murder of Paul's dog is juxtaposed with Travolta's humorous performance as a bad guy who also doesn't want to incur violence--resulting in a film which has the veneer of homage, but is in fact much more heartfelt.

Shot in lovely 35-mm by Eric Robbins and featuring an Ennio Morricone-inspired score by Jeff Grace, In a Valley of Violence only stumbles in its final third, where Paul goes on his predictable killing spree for vengeance. Though it's novel to have our hero going up against only a few enemies and himself tripping through the motions without a clear plan, the ending is also somewhat anti-climatic; relying too much on Ransone's over-ripe theatrics and Farmiga's plucky heroics instead of fully investing in Paul's emotional torment. Nevertheless, West shows genuine maturity and growth here, branching out of his comfort zone and into the realm of genre-shifting that speaks to his obvious affection for the Western. More than anything, In a Valley of Violence once again demonstrates that you just should't fuck with a man's dog. 

  

Of Men and War

 

Director: Laurent Becue-Renard

Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Though it played at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Laurent Becue-Renard's Of Men and War actually made it's national premiere earlier this year on PBS, and as such, might at first appear to be another political anti-war screed taking aim at PTSD-inflicted veterans. However, this is decidedly not the case, as Renard methodically allows physically and psychologically damaged men the freedom to speak about their trauma. It's a staggering film; delicately following the lives of several combat veterans inside a Nevada, California health facility over the course of six years. That rare documentary which transcends the format to become an intimate experience in which the camera and subjects merge into one unifying vision, Of Men and War is one of the year's most powerful films.

Much of the massive 142 minute running time simply takes place inside rooms where the men speak to a therapist regarding their horrific war-time experiences. Most of them wear dark sunglasses, perhaps to hide their true emotions, or even more tellingly, to conceal eye contact with their fellow veterans. The whole idea of crumbling macho posturing is laid bare here, as each individual presented gradually begins to crack under the sheer weight of what they've experienced. The film never judges or comments on their participation in the Iraq War, but simply observes them as vulnerable human beings, ravaged by sights and actions no one should ever have to see or bear. Girlfriends and wives appear on the periphery, but their inclusion isn't arbitrary, but instead shows the complexities of soldiers returning home from war to realize the psychic damage runs deeper than anticipated. In a way, the film sensitively reveals these brothers in arms genuine need for affirmation and community, even as they struggle to live "normal" lives.

Many anti-war pictures politicize their message with blunt force, but Renard wisely remains a passive observer. Not a single veteran rants against his government or gets into political debates, but it's clear by the tearful confessions and shell-shocked tales of modern warfare that the majority of these men are, at the very least, deeply conflicted about their actions. The complexity of emotions here run the gambit; some act out in fits of rage, others retreat inward, and there's a sense of helplessness common to all of them. The film's greatest triumph, therefore, is both it's apolitical perspective (though it still strikes cords of anti-war sentiment), as well as its refusal to offer up any tactile answers.

Our inability to reach out and help these men and in some cases, their inability to help themselves, creates a level of empathy foreign to most documentaries which seek to examine this kind of subject matter. Their struggle towards recovery is more than simply being able to talk openly, expose their emotions, and relive traumatic encounters, but rather, an entire lifetime of physical and mental anguish. This struggle, rendered so simply and humanistically, gives the film a gut-punch immediacy which comes on slowly like a wave. Gradually, many of the veterans even remove their dark shades so we can look into their eyes, and what we see is both troubling and hopeful. Of Men and War is kind of like that--extremely painful to absorb, but also strangely transcendent-- a sobering examination of human resilience in the face of unspeakable horrors.   

The Wailing

Cast: Kwak Do-Won, Hwang Jung-Min, Chun Woo-Hee

Director: Na Hong-jin

Running time: 2 hours 36 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Na Hong-jin's The Wailing is remarkable for juggling multiple tones at once without one single element rising to the surface to take center stage. One could label it a horror film, murder mystery, domestic drama, police procedural, supernatural thriller; even a dark comedy, and none of these descriptors would be misleading, However, unlike a lot of hybrids, The Wailing never settles into a comfortable genre groove; instead seeing fit to bend conventions with the reckless abandon that's become a South Korean cinematic specialty. At 156 minutes, it's almost too much of a good thing; a work of visceral kitchen sink maximalism which Na renders with a deft sense of control.

Control is also a word which comes to mind throughout The Wailing; along with bold, unpredictable, and operatic. Na has such firm control over his film that no matter how many detours he inevitably takes, there's never any sense of things slipping away from him. The story here takes place in Goksong; a mountainous locale with frequent torrential downpours and an increase in bizarre murders. Bumbling police officer Jong-Goo (Do Won Kwak) is on the case, staggering through crime scenes like something out of a slapstick comedy. Meanwhile, his young daughter Hyo-Jin (Kim Hwan-hee) gradually becomes possessed by a mysterious spirit as he's continuously beset by hallucinatory visions and crippling nightmares. There's a Japanese loner (Jun Kunimura) living out in the woods, a shaman (Hwang Jung-ming) from Seoul sent in to cast out the demons, and a Zen-like woman (Moo-Myeong) who may be a supernatural being of some kind, all characters directly involved in the escalating mystery.

The Wailing moves like a police procedural, has the atmosphere of a supernatural thriller, the impending sense of dread of a slow-burn horror picture, and the laid-back vibe of a hangout movie. To this last point, Na actually allows scenes to breathe rather than rushing through plot machinations, with much of the film's first half alternating between Jong-Goo hanging with his partner and bumbling through the investigation along with spending time with his daughter. Moments of absurdist humor in which the inefficacy of the police force is laid bare are bracketed by scenes of harrowing violence and grim ponderousness, but at no juncture does the tonal shifts feel jarring. It's odd mix, but not unlike other South Korean genre films such as The Host and I Saw the Devil, which also hold seemingly contradictory impulses in tandem.

Tragedy bleeds into farce. Horror joins hands with comedy. Domesticity gradually splinters apart by forces unexplained. Jong-Goo's emotional journey; held together by the love for his daughter who comes under attack by demonic forces, is central to Na's brilliant deconstruction of genre elements here. Certain set-pieces; like a standoff between cops, priest, and ravenous dog as well as a group attack featuring a "zombie-fied" victim, are both disturbing as well as strangely hilarious. There's an awkwardness to these encounters--an absurdity of chaos--which always keeps things from feeling too familiar, despite the genre trappings.  When the ultimate reveal of what's really going on is finally unveiled, it's a twisted, sorta funny, somewhat sad, and fairly ridiculous visual punch-line. It explains everything and nothing. Which, of course, perfectly sums up the film overall; twisted, funny, sad, and ridiculous. And controlled. Let's not forget boldly controlled and unpredictably brilliant. 

 

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Cast: Sam Neil, Julian Dennison, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby, Rachel House, Oscar Kightley

Director: Taika Waititi

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


There's a streak of polite absurdism running throughout Taika Waititi's Hunt for the Wilderpeople which proves to be both its greatest strength and achilles heel. Like his last feature, the hilarious vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, Waititi understands how to bend narrative conventions by using deadpan humor, but here, the story doesn't quite work the way it should because the comic tone is much too deliberate. Like fellow arch visual stylists Wes Anderson and Edgar Wright, Waititi uses static compositions, quick zoom lenses, and arch dialogue in order to paint a heightened portrait of humanity. In this case, it's a very specific, very New Zealand brand of humanity.

Based on a novel by Barry Crump and told in chapters, Hunt For the Wilderpeople has an oddball kind of charm as it tags along with a problem child and his curmudgeonly older guardian. It begins with the arrival of the boy, Ricky (Julian Dennison) to a remote farm owned by Bella and Hec (Rima Te Wiata and Sam Neil), where he initially proves to be a standoffish delinquent. Eventually, Ricky warms up to the maternal Bella, even as Hec gruffly dismisses his presence as little more than a nuisance. However, the narrative shifts after Bella suddenly leaves the picture, sending Ricky out into the wilderness on his own. Having no real affinity for survival in the wild, the kid soon becomes lost and hungry before Hec begrudgingly comes to his rescue. What follows is basically a series of chases pitting the unlikely pair of travelers against a gung-ho child services worker (Rachel House), her dim-witted assistant (Oscar Kightley), and a group of daft bounty hunters.

The plot here is pretty slim and Waititi isn't one for developing a sense of atmosphere. The New Zealand bush locales are filmed either in widescreen drone shots or tight compositions and look appropriately lush, but there's little sense of danger. The jungle-like terrain could have been a deft metaphor for Ricky's troubled coming-of-age, but Waititi mostly uses geography in order to stage broad sight gags. The film's major asset is the relationship which forms between the kid and his grizzled mentor, with Dennison and Neil gamely playing off each other. Meanwhile, Waititi's penchant for absurdism is fully embraced in the film's farcical action-oriented climax, which involves dozens of vehicles giving chase to our scruffy heroes. However, despite the spirited whimsy, the picture's self-consciously storybook tone strips away our ability to connect emotionally to the characters. This lack of connection would be fine if this was simply a straight comedy, but the film's attempts at pathos feel especially tacked on here since Waititi doesn't seem invested in the reality of this story.

Despite it's affability, Hunt for the Wilderpeople doesn't register as anything more than a trifle; a familiar odyssey of mismatched partners which just so happens to take place in the New Zealand wilderness. If Waititi had either pushed his off-beat sensibilities further or even backed away from them in a bid for realism, this could have been something altogether transporting. As it stands, it's a sweetly charming little movie, which is probably good enough.

 

Transpecos

Cast: Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, Clifton Collins, Jr.

Director: Greg Kwedar

Running time: 1 hour 26 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Greg Kwedar's debut feature Transpecos opens with with a prologue which encapsulate it's central theme, where a man casually kills another man against the backdrop of a deserted wasteland. This scene of violence is swift, merciless, and matter-of-fact; with the victim's pleas for mercy reverberating throughout the barren landscape like a mirage. It is within this geographical space where moral order ceases to exist; specifically the Pecos River near the Texas-Mexican border, that Kwedar charts his narrative concerning three Border patrol agents (Johnny Simmons, Gabriel Luna, and Clifton Collins Jr.) over the course of a day after an inspection goes wrong.

Like David MacKenzie's Hell or High Water; a picture which uses genre tropes in order to tell a very prescient story, Transpecos is similarly attuned to the rhythms and pacing of a Western, with occasional blasts of violence escalating the sense of tension. Unlike MacKenzie's solid if overpraised effort, however, Kwedar doubles-down on the idea of men thrown into a lawless world who are defined by geopolitical rules; in this case, America's war on drugs and immigration policies. This makes the film a tightly constructed thriller in which the three central characters must make decisions based on their ethical codes, as well as a bleak vision of the drug war/ illegal immigration debate.

None of this feels heavy-handed, however, because Kwedar keeps his focus narrow; allowing the three actors to get across the moral grey areas inherent within the film's premise. After a few scenes of playful banter between the central characters, rookie agent Davis (Simmons) claims that he must break the law when things take a turn for the worse during a routine border stop, which cause the grizzled leader, Hobbs (Collins Jr.) to gaze stoically into the face of peril without raising an eyebrow. The third agent, Lance (Luna) views the unraveling situation involving smuggled drugs, an irate cartel boss, and threatened family members more pragmatically, attempting to diffuse Davis's panic-stricken state.

What follows is a lean piece of genre filmmaking which uses violence sparingly but effectively, drawing sharp performances (Luna is especially superb as a man desperately trying to do the right thing under increasingly dangerous circumstances), and overall, displaying a welcome lack of moralizing. Lance's decision to choose empathy over nihilism is noteworthy in a location seeking to purge any sense of justice, but ultimately, Transpecos is not about life lessons or escalating a moral high ground. Instead, It's a character study about self-preservation in a world which cares little whether you live or die.

 

De Palma

 

Cast: Brian De Palma

Director: Noah Baumbach, Jake Paltrow

Running time: 1 hour 47 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


For a certain type of cinephile, Brian De Palma is one of the greatest living filmmakers of his generation; a man who has fashioned a specific catalog of pictures combining obsessive aesthetic style with lurid genre tropes. That his filmography has been both lauded and derided speaks to the director's place within cinema history as someone operating outside the studio system while being intrinsically tied to it. Unlike fellow "film brats" Spielberg, Lucas, Coppola, and Scorsese; all of whom went onto critical and commercial success to varying degrees within the system, De Palma has always been the odd man out.

The shrewdest decision made by directors Noah Baumbach and Jake Paltrow with De Palma was having the man himself speak directly into the camera regarding his career. Superficially a very simple conceit, this is nonetheless the best of all possible ways to approach this subject, as it strips away the impersonal talking heads format from outside parties and allows De Palma to become his own greatest critic and biggest admirer. With a mixture of self-deprecation, wit, and brutal honesty, the artist deconstructs his art in a way which speaks to the very reason we go to the movies in the first place, making De Palma a cinema lover's dream; a poignant tribute to both one filmmaker's contribution to the art form as well as a pleasurable sensory experience that only the medium could provide.  

Moving from his early years at Columbia University and then proceeding in chronological order as footage from the discussed films is interspersed with playful anecdotes and insightful production notes, De Palma reveals the auteur as a somewhat tragic figure even as it never devolves into hero worship. Many of the most notorious images and sequences get the full treatment here; such as the controversial phallic drill from Body Double and Carrie's infamous opening featuring a throng of nude young women caught in poetic slow-motion. De Palma's baffled reaction to the public outrage concerning many of his films seems like more than simple hubris; it's a window into the mind of an artist struggling with representing what makes sense to him for whichever particular story he's telling and the hyperbolic reactions to such images. Often accused of being interested only in aesthetic, what's striking about De Palma is the way it illuminates the filmmaker's style into a symphony of montage that both explains his fixations as well as deepens his thematic obsessions from film to film.

Far from a Hitchcock plagiarist as many detractors have claimed, De Palma expresses disappointment in how his pictures have been unfairly maligned for simply taking the style of a celebrated director and going into another direction with them. His fondness for split screens, long tracking shots and bird's eye compositions may seem at times like affections, but the idea of taking Hitchcock's approach into seedier, more pulpy territory should not be undervalued. Likewise, De Palma's obsession with violence (particularly against women), unstoppable killers, sexual voyeurism, and impotent male heroes, is always covered at length here, inextricably tied into his rigid formalism. Most telling, however, is how De Palma sees failure in nearly everything he's made (save for perhaps Carlitos Way, which he claims is his best film), openly admitting that, for example, the Bonfire of the Vanities fiasco came from his creative caving into studio demands.

The most surprising and ultimately transcendent thing about the film, however, is how it corrects the idea of De Palma as some soulless technician. Baumbach and Paltrow's greatest strength here isn't simply the compiling of key footage (though that is impressive in its own right), but in how they create a comfortable environment for him to open up. There's something endearing, for instance, by his constant refrain of "holy mackarel!" when hopscotching through behind-the-scenes tidbits, or how melancholic he seems when discussing various romantic relationships that fell apart. Ultimately, his love for cinema shines through, and no matter how one feels about his body of work, there's no questioning that De Palma is essential viewing for film-lovers. 

 

From Afar

 
 

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Luis Silva

Director: Lorenzo Vigas

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Every so often, a film comes along with a narrative structure which seems to be giving you one kind of story, only to slowly reveal itself as something else entirely. Lorenzo Vigas's From Afar is one such film; a brilliantly understated and deeply haunting meditation on desire and the pitfalls of infatuation. It follows the mundane existence of middle-aged Armando (Alfredo Castro), a man who frequently cruises the streets of Venezuela for young straight men by showing them a wad of cash and then asking them to come back to his apartment. During the opening scene, we are shown one such encounter in which a teen boy undresses himself while Armando sits across the room pleasuring himself. We assume, of course, that Armando is a sexually frustrated creep; someone who preys on impoverished street kids by flaunting his wealth, but after picking up a wary 17-year-old named Elder (Luis Silva), the film's perspective starts to shift. Vigas's intentions here seem to be less about exploitation or demonizing his characters; but rather, about how unreciprocated desire and the role of estranged fathers can cause a schism in one's sense of masculinity.

Like Abdellah Taia's similarly nuanced queer love story Salvation Army, From Afar buries its themes within the socio-economic gap between older men of certain means and adolescent street punks hustling simply to survive. Even though Elder accosts Armando, calling him an "old fag" and brutally knocking him unconscious at one point, there's a genuine connection which forms between them. Some of this has to do with fiscal realities; Armando buys Elder food and provides him with material necessities, but there's also an erotic undercurrent stemming from mutually distant relationships with their respective fathers. Vigas masterfully delineates this information by shooting in shallow and deep focus, separating the object of desire and the one watching for much of the film before eventually drawing them closer together in the frame. Meanwhile, Castro matches his director's clear-eyed vision with one of the year's most subtle and devastatingly moving performances. His portrayal of Armando leans mostly on a sense of longing caught in the eyes and through the use of small gestures; seen most vividly in one particular scene where Elder offers to clean up the dishes after a meal. The subtle shift from stoic gaze to half-smile is so unaffected that one might not even notice it, and there are many moments like this where Castro gives us just enough to sympathize with Armando while also leaving us wondering just what motivates him.

From Afar arrives at some unexpected places during its final third, but it never feels like the narrative is creaking under the weight of screenwriting manipulation. These are damaged, broken, fully human characters making decisions based on different survival mechanisms, and Vigas's empathy toward them makes their ultimate fates all the more inevitable. Once Elder acts out physically on impulses he doesn't fully understand, it's almost as if the entire relationship loses it's meaning for Armando; culminating in a climax that's quietly heart-breaking. Intrinsically linked to the ways in which we are often drawn to unattainable objects of desire, From Afar is more than simply an essential addition to Queer cinema; it has the universal tinge of real life.

 

The Childhood of a Leader

 

Cast: Bérénice Bejo, Liam Cunningham, Stacy Martin, Robert Pattinson, Tom Sweet

Director: Brady Corbet

Running Time: 1 hour 56 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Based on a 1939 short story of the same name by Jean-Paul-Sarte, The Childhood of a Leader is a formally audacious debut from 27-year-old American actor Brady Corbet, who has worked with provocateurs such as Michael Haneke and Lars Von Trier. These two points of reference are especially apt here, because Corbet seems to have absorbed all his influences into something which feels very European; not just in terms of the casting, but also in its visual look and overall perspective. Corbet should certainly be applauded for the uncompromising nature of his vision; complete with a haunting classical score from musician Scott Walker, but the film’s central allegory is a rather simplistic notion of how Fascism rose out of European boredom. Furthermore, the screenplay, written by Corbet and Mona Fastvold, structures the narrative around a young boy (newcomer Tom Sweet), who goes from a prankster throwing rocks at church practitioners to something much more insidious because, well...that’s what the script dictates in order to make a larger thematic point.

What this point ultimately is jumps the shark fairly early from ambiguity into the realm of outright incoherence. It’s one thing to shroud your film in a mysterious atmosphere of dread; it’s quite another to cover over a story which never quite figures out what type of narrative it wants to tell. Divided into three chapters charting the boy’s “tantrums”, The Childhood of a Leader looks and sounds tremendous; from the period-appropriate set design to cinematographer Lol Crawley’s poetically dark images to that aforementioned score, which often seems on the verge of swallowing the entire film whole. Corbet’s aim here seems to be revealing the rise of Fascism after the end of World War I because of certain socio-political and philosophical ideas rising up within the culture at large, but these broader notions are jettisoned in lieu of giving us a detached demon-seed horror movie without the actual horror. Exactly how and why this child moves from a typically rambunctious troublemaker into something emblematic of an entire nation’s rotting moral center is never clarified in a compelling way, which means Corbet’s intentions never reach beyond mere aesthetic. Most of the film simply alternates between scenes of the kid acting out--locking himself inside his room, groping the French teacher (Stacy Martin), wandering around the house in a state of undress--and those of his mother (Bérénice Bejo) moving towards religious fanaticism while the father (Liam Cunningham) deals with diplomatic meetings, including the Treaty of Versailles. Meanwhile, Robert Pattinson shows up in a few scenes as family friend and widowed politician whose ideology may in fact align with the adolescent monster-to-be. 

The Childhood of a Leader is a film which could easily be given a pass considering it’s an auspicious debut with a welcome aversion to pandering to mainstream sensibilities, but Corbet can only get by on aesthetic alone for so long. At some point, he has to tie up loose ends; culminating in a visual and auditory tour-de-force finale where his camera swirls around capturing a flurry of political activity. This ending, though impressive technically, lacks dramatic impact since the rest of the picture never really built up to such a moment in any organic sense. Without any rich exploration of the historical time-frame or intricate understanding of the characters, the film basically boils down to “Problem Child: The Fascism Years.”    

 

 

 

 

 

 

High-Rise

 

Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Jeremy Irons, Sienna Miller, Luke Evans, Elisabeth Moss

Director: Ben Wheatley

Running Time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


Ben Wheatley continues his attempts at channeling Ken Russell with his latest feature High-Rise; an adaptation of J.G. Ballard's novel of the same name in which society breaks down through a corporate caste system which effectively turns people into monsters. Russell is famous for courting controversy in the 1960s and 70s for his brazen disregard for censorship and narrative-free shooting style, of which 1971's The Devils remains his crowning jewel of depraved cinema. Wheatley, meanwhile, has amassed his own cult following in the UK and abroad for channeling a similar kind of filmmaking aesthetic; arty, stylistic, undisciplined, and not concerned in the slightest with standard plotting and narrative structure. Previous efforts like the macabre domestic drama/hit man genre riff Kill List and the brilliantly wonky occult period piece A Field in England have afforded the filmmaker uncommon control over his productions. Pairing him with a writer like Ballard, whose work, save for Steven Spielberg's adaptation of Empire of the Sun and David Cronenberg's Crash, has long been deemed unfilmable, seems like a perfect fit. However, the satirical thrust of Ballard's prose as well his prophetically intellectual ideas in regards to 21st-Century capitalism, are all but abandoned here in favor of simplistic class war-fare motifs and a repetitive swirl of debauchery, violence, and social decay.

The film follows Laing (Tom Hiddleston), a forensic pathologist who moves into the 25th floor of the brand new luxury high-rise building conceived by architect Royal (Jeremy Irons, suitably reptilian) who resides on the luxuriant 40th floor. Laing is an attractive bachelor, a man of science, and someone with a mysterious past (there are hints of a sister who committed suicide), but mostly, he's a piece of flesh to be ogled at and then devoured. An upstairs neighbor (Sienna Miller) does most of the ogling as he conveniently falls asleep naked on his balcony with a book strategically placed over his male member, while local resident and documentary filmmaker Wilder (Luke Evans, acting mostly with huge mutton chops) takes care of the devouring; openly spreading his hatred for the wealthy living on the upper levels. Having an inherently likable screen presence like Hiddelston occupying such a thorny character certainly helps, but Laing is just another cog in a quasi-Marxist system which stumbles into anarchy without much conceivable build-up. Things escalate into chaos so quickly, with Wheatley working mostly in fragmented montages, that any sense of tension, momentum, or genuine investment in the outcome of such a scenario feels all but arbitrary.

All effective satires require a degree of subtlety to transcend self-parody, and it's here where High-Rise really stumbles. The screenplay by Amy Jump retains Ballard's worldview, but disregards the ambiguity of pitting an essentially middle-class group against the upper-class. Instead, it opts for sledgehammer obviousness; like playing audio of a Margaret Thatcher speech and having Che Guevara posters hanging in the background during several shots. This simplistic rendering of a complicated situation means that Wheatley's heightened artistry; including slow-motion, screen filters, blaring strobe lights, and sped up editing tricks, never feels as shocking or edgy as he clearly intends. It's almost as if the characters here are more or less mentally unstable from the outset, which means there's very little in the way of audience investment in terms of where the wobbly narrative is heading. Whereas Bong Joon-ho's traveling train thriller Snowpiercer used cannibalism as a metaphor for class differences, High-Rise gives us a French aristocratic theme party attended by the upper class, because, you know, audiences won't get the point otherwise.

Perhaps the overarching message of High-Rise is that both classes are artificial and primitive, and that everyone is just a few ticks away from depraved madness. However, though the film fetishizes it's 70s milieu with considerable style, placing this particular story in the past also means that Wheatley limits his picture's scope and impact. The garish costumes, bad mustaches, and tacky period decor affords much in the way of colorful set design, but tells us very little about the internal lives of the people trapped inside this building. Their desires, their wants, their fears; they are all beholden to the film's mechanical construction. It's a movie about being a cult movie; the kind of thing which relishes it's own outlandish depiction of rambling nihilism without the context that would make it intellectually stimulating. Ultimately, High-Rise is a big us-versus-them orgy thrown by a talented host who somehow forgot why he was throwing a party in the first place.

Tale of Tales

 

Cast: Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, Vincent Cassel, Bebe Cave

Director: Matteo Garrone

Running Time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


Matteo Garrone's adaption of a handful of 17th Century fairy tales from poet Giambattista Basile is an unwieldy but entertaining antidote to the usual studio brand of fantasy blockbusters. While films in that genre usually fashion spectacle for spectacles sake, Garrone is interested in how fairy tales form the basis for notions of sexuality, gender, youth, patriarchy, and identity. While Tale of Tales may not delve deeply into the themes it raises, the filmmaker's control over the eccentric tone; which veers wildly from whimsy to melancholy to grotsequery, is something to behold. Presenting a series of loosely interlocking stories and then cutting back and forth between them, Garrone manages to give us something disjointed, baggy, but unlike a lot of standard fantasy fare, fairly unpredictable.

Twin blonde brothers, an underwater sea creature, a queen eating a boiled heart, old hags feeding on breast milk, disobedient princesses, rulers obsessed with fleas, rampaging ogres; these are only a few of the ingredients in this garish brew. Making his English language debut, Garrone seems somewhat uneasy directing a cast that includes Salma Hayek, John C. Reilly, Toby Jones, and Vincent Cassel, all of whom seem to be wandering in from different movies. But this atmosphere of oddness; with flat dialogue and (purposefully?) tacky special effects, gives everything a wonky charm rather than a streamlined accessibility. The stories include the bond between a pair of albino twins (Christian Lees and Jonah Lees) born to separate mothers, a queen (Hayek) who will go to any length to bare a child, a king (Toby Jones) caring after a rapidly growing pet flea while ignoring his petulant daughter, and a depraved ruler (Cassell) falling for a shut-in old spinster without ever seeing her face. Without a formally consistent way of allowing the tales to mirror or bounce off one another, Garrone loses much in the way of thematic richness. Still, Tale of Tales retains the director's interest in farce and magical realism which dominated his last effort, the Fellini-esque parable Reality, resulting in a carnivalesque patchwork which hints at the kind of dark absurdism found throughout Pasolini's "Trilogy of Life".

To a certain degree, the lavish sets, melodramatic performances, sweeping camera movements, elaborate costumes, and Alexandre Desplat's bouncy score help offset the picture's structural problems and dangling plot threads. Beyond simple entertainment value, the film seems to be getting at abuses of power; from the queen's invocation of black magic in order to conceive, to Cassell's king being so obsessed with his sexual prowess that he mistakenly goes to bed with a deformed hag. These are stories about powerful people warped and mutilated by their positions, given to hubris and unwavering didacticism. These are stories that, despite their macabre freakishness, contain universal themes of youth, beauty, corruption, and twists of fate.

Ultimately, there's a streak of nasty fatalism running throughout Tale of Tales, something Garrone also brought to Gomorrah, his feature debut about the Italian mafia. If that film's nightmarish sense of pessimism was rooted in the gritty socioeconomic climate of it's milieu, then this one uses the basic elements of folklore to get at larger ideas of power, corruption, and the ugliness of human nature. However, if such themes don't always coherently translate, there's always the sight of Salma Hayek devouring the bloody heart of a sea serpent, an ogre crossing a chasm using a rope, a dancing bear, a mutant bat monster, and most humorously, Vincent Cassel tossing a deformed old women out an open window.

Victoria

 

Cast: Laia Costa, Frederick Lau, Burak Yigit, Franz Rogowski, Maximilian Mauff

Director: Sebastian Schipper

Running Time: 2 hours 18 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Director Sebastian Schipper's Victoria will forever be labeled the "one-take movie." This is because, as advertised, the film unfolds over the course of 138-minutes in a single unbroken shot. Throughout the decades, filmmakers have experimented with the one-take format; Alfred Hitchcock's Rope, Russian Ark, the Oscar-winning Birdman from last year, but none can lay claim to Schipper's mind-boggling technical achievement here. But does the degree of extreme difficulty; with actors needing to hit their marks with precision and an entire plot that must be mapped out and meticulously rehearsed automatically translate into a successful film?Victoria is easy to overpraise because it does something that seems impossible from a technical standpoint and pulls it off, but there's a fundamental disconnect in terms of aesthetics and the actual story Schipper is trying to tell.

Things start promisingly with a sequence set inside a strobe-lit Berlin dance club, which provides a bit of smart character-building. Glimpsed through fog and flashing lights is the titular young woman (Laia Costa), who, in between sweaty bouts of dancing, runs around like someone for whom youthful exuberance is all that matters. The fact that she appears to be alone, ordering shots of whiskery and flirting with the bartender, creates an immediate impression that anything could happen to her. This is a nice setup, further complicated once she joins a group of roving, drunken young men after exiting the club. Upon learning that she's relocated to Berlin from Spain, the group; led by the charismatic Sonne (Frederick Lau) invite her to come along with them for more partying, which instantly gives the film a creepy rape culture subtext. Surprisingly, Schipper doesn't give into easy impulses and instead gradually reveals a growing connection between Victoria and Sonne, which is capped off with a few genuinely touching moments involving a piano inside a deserted cafe.

Unfortunately, the early goodwill is deflated simply because without cuts, Victoria is twice as long as it should be and feels even longer than it's actual running time, which is too long to begin with. For all the technical virtuosity on display; (cinematographer/ camera operator Sturla Brandth Grovlen gets top billing during the end credits and for good reason), this is nonetheless a story which has no real reason to be executed in this manner. In fact, it can be argued that the film's second half; which dips into genre heist territory, really should be played as a taut thriller, but Schipper's aesthetic eliminates any sense of tension because editing, as we all know, is crucial to the cinematic form of tension-building. Without such formal restrictions, Schipper is forced to fall in love with his own gimmick, and his film, despite Costa's committed central performance and the herculean efforts of the crew, falls apart under it's own limited pretensions. It's one thing to admire a technical accomplishment; it's quite another to fathom why this particular story, which is skeletal to start with, deserves such epic treatment. Perhaps the answer, which no one really wants to hear, is that Victoria probably wouldn't be worth making otherwise. There's really not much there.

One could make the argument that Schipper is attempting to mimic reality by not allowing the audience a chance to escape through standard editing and normative story beats. But cinema has always intrinsically been tied to meaning through imagery; by the way compositions are juxtaposed against one another and how time can be condensed into a feeling or an emotional state of mind. Victoria can never be as powerful or as resonant as other films dealing in similar terrain because it mistakenly thinks that allowing us to observe something play out in its entirety is somehow more realistic, or in the case of the film's back half, intensely thrilling. In fact, it's all a big cheat anyway since movies have always been constructed fantasies and Victoria is one of the biggest artificial constructs ever attempted. That it achieves it's end goal is impressive in a geek-centric film student kind of way, but the actual story being told doesn't add up to much. There's a reason films have traditionally used editing as a storytelling tool, and although it's a bold decision to buck convention, Schipper's picture feels a bit like a drunken dare. It's ultimately too enamored with it's own elaborate construction to bother pondering the immortal lines from Jurassic Park spoken by Ian Malcolm, "they were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, that they didn't stop to think if they should."

Entertainment

 

Cast: Gregg Turkington, John C. Reilly, Tye Sheridan, Michael Cera, Tim Heidecker

Director: Rick Alverson

Running Time: 1 hour 50 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Rick Alverson doesn't make films for the audience. Or more precisely, he doesn't make films that coddle the audience into feeling good about themselves. If 2012's The Comedy, starring Tim Heidecker as an aging hipster prone to agonizing narcissism rubbed people the wrong way, then his followup Entertainment makes even less concessions to traditional audience empathy. But Alverson, who developed this project closely with co-writer and star Gregg Turkington, isn't out for cheap provocation. This isn't a film being difficult for the sake of being difficult; but rather, a bold and oftentimes darkly hilarious examination of an artist's unyielding self-hatred. It's also, incidentally, commenting on the ways in which comedians have tried to express themselves throughout the decades, pushing back against a sea of homogeny and flat punchlines. A strange ramble into the black heartland of empty deserts, dingy bars, and cheap motels, Entertainment exists as a bold corrective to the notion that movies, especially in 2015, need to be cuddly endeavors with sympathetic protagonists and likable narrative arcs.

The film follows the unnamed comedian (Turkington) as he moves through the American wasteland, pausing his journey periodically to partake in small group-tours. This latter bit is envisioned by Alverson as a seemingly curious sidebar--with the comedian walking slowly through a bombed out airplane and zoning out to the sight of large-scale oil pumps. While these vignettes may appear random or unnecessary, they are crucial in capturing the sight of a man caught inside a near mental breakdown. Turkington, who is essentially playing an extension of his standup alter-ego Neil Hamburger, gives a towering, unglamorous central performance. His character is both extreme and withdrawn, hostile and unbelievably sad, prone to provoking a reaction onstage and then withdrawing into himself while not performing. With his greasy comb-over, cheap tuxedo, and penchant for holding multiple drinks, Turkington's Andy Kauffman by-way-of Tony Clifton performance stunt is the epitome of bad taste. And yet, his high-pitched voice gurgling phlegm while uttering bad jokes about rape and Carrot Top, is consistently funny in the way that anti-comedy should be. During the scenes where he's not onstage, Turkington buries himself into the role of an individual who exists as a kind of self-hating ghost, rarely initiating conversation or even pretending to placate others socially. Sitting inside his motel room watching some bizarre Mexican soap opera while cradling a beer, it's clear that this is a man for whom "reality" is itself a cosmic joke.

Entertainment often plays like a cross between Martin Scorsese's seminal show-biz satire The King of Comedy and Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas; in that it's a road movie in which the central protagonist is literally and metaphorically going nowhere while at the same time envisioning the very act of "entertainment" as something illusionary. There's also a little David Lynch-style weirdness thrown in; from the sight of the comedian wearing a white suit inside a jail cell and a nightmarish stillborn baby delivery sequence that feels like a nod to Eraserhead. Alverson, though, doesn't bank on hallucinatory strangeness as a crutch, as the vast majority of the film makes sense as a kind of microcosm of life on the road, punctuated by long moments of erie stillness. What's most fascinating is that even though there's plenty of off-putting macabre humor, the film is much more downbeat, slow, and poignantly sad than expected. There's an accompanying clown performer (a game Tye Sheridan), a dim-witted but well-meaning cousin (John C. Reily), a menacing drifter (Michael Cera), and even blink-or-you'll-miss them cameos from Dean Stockwell (another Paris, Texas wink) and Amy Seimetz as a drunken audience member who retaliates against the comedian's deplorable act. But through it all, one gets the sense that the comedian's emptiness somehow stems from his estranged relationship with his daughter; a touch by Alverson, Turkington, and fellow screenwriter Tim Heidecker that pushes the film into far more interesting territory.

Of course, Entertainment doesn't turn into one man's journey towards reuniting with his daughter and therefore, redemption. Instead, this recurring motif only hints at the comedian's deteriorating mental state. The fact that he wants to both piss off the audience as well as gain some form of acceptance (he often complains about the crowd's lack of enthusiasm for his material) is a dichotomy that Alverson wishes to spring on us, the watchers of his film. As art, movies should challenge, provoke, and upset the status quo. They should be willing to shed the need for sympathetic protagonists and agreeable plot points that audience members find "relatable". Art is not always about relatability or even likeability, but is instead a window into which our more base and unsympathetic urges can be laid bare. When the comedian arrives at a party for one his Hollywood elite friends (Heidecker, in another coy joke) during the third act and unravels in spectacular fashion, the sense of both horrifying sadness and uncomfortable humor at being a spectator to such a thing is instructive to understanding the brilliance of Alverson's accomplishment. Anti-comedy? Provocative stunt? Sure, but also thrilling in resisting the trap so many so-called comedies have fallen into in terms of appealing to the "four-quadrant" mentality. Legitimate art isn't and shouldn't be for everyone, and Entertainment stands as a high example for that cause.

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Nasty Baby

 

Cast: Kristen Wiig, Sebastián Silva, Tunde Adebimpe, Mark Margolis, Reg E. Cathy

Director: Sebastián Silva

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


If obstacles in telling stories, revealing character pathology, and upholding narrative structures are indicative of the filmmaking process in general, then director Sebastián Silva's latest film Nasty Baby throws out such expectations altogether. This is not solely due to a third act tonal shift which will likely send audiences reeling and exacerbated, but rather because Silva examines a very specific millennial narrative which feels culturally germane. The story of gay lovers Freddy and Mo (Silva and Tunde Adebimpe, respectively) living in Brooklyn attempting to have a baby with Polly (Kristen Wiig) seems on the surface to be a PC-friendly dramedy in which cultural touchstones of acceptance and inclusivity are displayed write large. However, Silva bucks convention by shooting everything in a loose, seemingly improvised style and allowing his characters to dip into morally ambiguous areas and clueless egotism. This isn't a tale of the saintly homosexual couple and their well-meaning straight gal pal roaming around NYC getting into wacky misadventures. Instead, Silva's aims are much more transgressive. Like his previous film, 2013's Crystal Fairy, there's a cross-section of humor and tragedy inherent in the makeup of Nasty Baby which gives it an unpredictable pulse.

Throughout the majority of its running time, Silva's film has a naturalistic energy and good-naturedness which somewhat offsets the fact that these are essentially privileged characters living in a gentrified neighborhood. Freddy's bohemian art projects are used as both critique and acknowledgement of Brooklyn hipsterdom; such as his obsession with creating videos in which he behaves like a rolling-on-the-ground screaming toddler. Other characters appear on the periphery; a delightfully droll Mark Margolis as a street monitor and Reg E. Cathy as a possibly homeless man named Bishop who harasses people and uses a loud leaf blower during the early morning hours. It's this latter character which initially seems like a problematic concession to revealing common stereotypes and bigotry, but Silva has more on his mind than simply riling up the audience. That Bishop is a stand-in for the liberal notion of sympathizing with "mental illness" is instructive, and Cathy's dead-on performance suggests an uneasy alliance between intellectualized empathy and practical social interaction.

Nasty Baby seems to center around the notion of creation and destruction as necessary artistic impulses. Freddy and Mo desire to create a life in order to feel accepted and normative in their respective environment. Polly wants to be a central part of creating this child because as she states countless times, her biological clock is ticking and this could be her last chance. Freddy hopes to create art to provoke and engage others into recognizing his post-modern wit, but when his methods are questioned in one humorously absurdist scene with a gallery owner, he descends into the kind of millennial depression common to so many precious souls receiving criticism these days. Meanwhile, during a trip to visit Mo's family, Freddy and Polly are visibly taken aback by the fact that some people don't agree with their plans to have a baby, much less with Freddy and Mo's homosexual lifestyle in general. This sequence, in which Mo's sister becomes increasingly upset about the scenario as the father sits at the dinner table in complete silence, says alot about the way those existing in politically correct environments are oblivious to ideologies outside their bubble.

Then, of course, there's that aforementioned third act tonal shift. Even categorizing it this way, though, highlights the flimsy nature of narrative structure to begin with. Many will see the climax as an offensive reversal of what has transpired and therefore, a complete betrayal. But does art, as a way of visualizing creation and destruction, need to follow a three-act structure which appeals to an audience's sensibilities? Are there tonal shifts in real life? Sure, and the disturbing event that closes Nasty Baby may have even been more "understandable" had it come 40 minutes earlier, but Silva isn't interested in contextualizing the horrific nature of the final moments. It is, much like so many things that happen in life, sudden and unfathomable; though there are hints along the way foreshadowing this inevitability. The way the characters act might seem unbelievable or at odds with their previous behavior, but then that presupposes that we really understand or sympathize with these people. In a way, Silva gives a big middle finger to the complacently suspect liberal audience to which his picture will likely appeal; revealing the self-congratulatory trap that films with these types of characters often easily fall into. In that sense, Nasty Baby acts as a kind of corrective to so many of the well-meaning but facile indies these days positing marginalized characters as somehow noble and above egregious human behavior.

Cop Car

 

Cast: : Kevin Bacon, Shea Whigham, James Freedson-Jackson, Hays Wellford, Camryn Manheim

Director: Jon Watts

Running Time: 1 hour 26 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Much ink has already been spilled about Marvel and Sony's decision to tap director Jon Watts to direct the next Spider-man movie, which may unfairly subject his latest film Cop Car to unwarranted scrutiny, but there must have been something the studio heads saw in this low budget thriller as cross-over potential for big-budget comic book fare. Perhaps it was the film's opening scenes, which are strong in depicting the aimlessness of two kids running away from home without a discernible reason beyond boredom. Smartly, Watts doesn't layer on a tragic backstory for Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) or some broken home situation. Instead, he simply presents them as kids wandering through wide-open fields; cursing, joking, and making things up as they go along. During these early moments, the mobile camera steadily tracks Travis and Harrison as they stumble along, perfectly capturing that time in one's youth where possibilities seemed endless.

Discovering an abandoned police vehicle in the woods, the boys eventually find themselves having a blast playing mini-cops; driving around recklessly, blaring the siren, and in one gratuitous sequence, goofing around with loaded guns they find inside the car. What we learn in flashbacks is that the vehicle's owner, a local Sheriff played by Kevin Bacon with goofy intensity, left the car in the woods in order to dispose of a body. What exactly transpired leading him to that point is unclear, but what's immediately apparent is that these kid's idyllic fun zone is about to get serious very quickly.

Once suspicious noises start coming from the trunk and Bacon's panicked Sheriff begins communicating with the kids via police radio, whatever goodwill the film had built up begins to fall away. The problem here is that Watts is shamelessly aping the aesthetic of allowing scenes to drag on without a concrete story, but without the considerable directorial skill in maintaining the kind of tension that would cover over such a thin premise. Mood and atmosphere trumping plot and character motivations are fine in theory, but Watts never develops the mechanics of his script (co-written with Christopher D. Ford) enough for us to truly understand his characters, much less care about them. Even the obvious angle of putting two young boys in serious danger feels like a gimmick, and instead of deepening the bond between them as things start to unravel, they become sidelined in favor of a violent feud between Bacon's lawman and a jittery low-life played by Shea Whigham. An arbitrary female character is also introduced in the form of Camryn Manheim's worried small town citizen, whose presence is little more than a convenient plot device in order to set in motion a nihilistic finale.

Cop Car essentially becomes an exploitative inversion of the Amblin Entertainment brand from the 80s; wherein boys make awkward glances toward adulthood while getting into all kinds of pre-pubescent peril. However, Watts is a more unsympathetic director than Spielberg, and consequently turns his film into the opposite type of manipulation. Whereas Spielberg would have viewed Travis and Harrison's predicament as a means of exploring male friendship pushed to the breaking point with the absence of a strong father figure looming in the background, Watts simply treats everything like a clinical exercise in cat-and-mouse string pulling. What this means is that even though maudlin sentiment is kept at bay, there's really no core emotional investment in any of the characters. Bacon twirls his moustache and chews the scenery, but his Sheriff Kretzer is little more than a cartoon villain and provides mostly chuckles instead of menace, which would have been ideal if Watts was making a midnight B-movie, but his aims are clearly more serious-minded. What this film needed was either a tighter screenplay construction or a more lurid sensibility. It isn't brooding enough to qualify as a Blue Ruin-esque thriller, and the vibrantly macabre humor of the Coen Brothers (clearly one of Watts' influences) is largely absent. Instead, what began as an astute rendering of two young kids in thrall with their unlimited potential eventually dovetails into predictable genre territory; turning slack where it should be ratcheting up the suspense, and using the played-out children in peril motif to diminishing returns. That's too bad, since Bacon's backwoods moustache deserves better.

Uncertain Terms

 

Cast: India Menuez, David Dahlbom, Tallie Medel, Cindy Silver, Hannah Gross, Casey Drogin

Director: Nathan Silver

Running Time: 1 hour 11 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Writer-director Nathan Silver makes the kind of idiosyncratic lo-fi indie films which often generate festival buzz, only to vanish into the netherworld of VOD hell shortly thereafter. His last two features, Exit Elena and Soft in the Head, were exceptional examples of go-for-broke filmmaking (both literally and aesthetically), cementing him as a genuinely exciting voice in the indie scene. If Soft in the Head proved Silver's knack for staging a swirling mosaic of Brooklyn life with unsympathetic characters, then Uncertain Terms just as easily showcases his skills at scaling back further into the realm of muted melodrama. This is not the kind of film which catapults indie darlings into the Hollywood spotlight or snags them a Netflix Original series. It's much too understated, too impressionistic, too astute at nailing it's character's foolish yearning and untapped potential. It's a film which will likely be labeled "slight" or "inconsequential", but that's severely undervaluing Silver's accomplishment here. He makes it look easy, and his actors (many of them unprofessionals) follow suit.

Silver's films have never really been concerned with plot, and Uncertain Terms is no different. Essentially, it's the story of Robbie (David Dahlbom), a 30-year-old who arrives at a refuge house for unstable pregnant girls run by his aunt, Carla (Cindy Silver). However, it's just as much about how the arrival of this world-weary man upsets the communal bond the girls have formed, particularly in regards to Nina (India Menuez), a waifish, soon-to-be mother with a dim-witted boyfriend (Casey Drogin) who strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Robbie. Incidentally, Robbie is also going through a painful separation from his wife, which places him firmly in the cross-hairs of the girl's affections. At first, he keeps to himself; building cabinets and digging trenches, but at a certain point, he's drawn to Nina in a way that feels organic, if ultimately problematic. The majority of the film simply presents contained sequences where the girls sit around and chat, take walks, interact with Godmother Cindy, and pine for the mysterious Robbie. Jealousy and envy crops up when of the other girls (Tallie Medel) becomes obsessed with seducing him, even as he clearly has no interest in her advances. While this may sound like the recipe for a trite domestic melodrama, Silver never allows his film to go off the rails emotionally, choosing to keep things grounded in quasi-reality.

What makes Uncertain Terms such a special film, beyond the evocative cinematography and slice-of-life naturalism, is it's near perfect distillation of that turning point in a person's life where change is an inevitable force. Nina is too young and unformed to realize her attraction to a 30-year-old man is doomed, and conversely, Robbie's hitting rock bottom due to the devastating revelation of his wife's infidelity mean his poor decision-making stems from a place of discombobulating pain. Silver removes judgement and merely captures their burgeoning connection through sensitively handled scenes of quiet interaction and playful conversation. For example, the moment where Robbie teaches Nina how to drive is one of the year's best sequences; simple, sublime, and true, capturing the look of pure joy on Nina's face as she experiences something exhilarating for the very first time. This relationship may be inappropriate, but Silver manages to convince us, much like his deluded characters, that it means something. Much of this has to do with Menuez's remarkable performance as Nina. At times, she seems wise beyond her years; while at others, her emotional insecurities remind us that she's still only a child. The shadow of impending motherhood and her boyfriend's lack of maturity causes her to be drawn to what she believes is someone who will take care of her; someone older, more wise and understanding of life's hardships. However, despite his age, Robbie is in a clear state of arrested development, which is further intensified by heartbreak.

Uncertain Terms may be too haphazardly opaque for some viewers who prefer narrative arcs and an explicit point of view, but the situations presented here are complicated, and the much like real life, not easily categorized. In it's brief 71 minutes, Silver takes us on an emotional journey without ever cramming in overly written scenes of catharsis, (though there are a few moments that, in the hands of a lesser filmmaker, could have felt contrived). In it's own unobtrusive way, the film gets at something essential about both growing up fast as well as refusing to act one's age; conjuring a tactile poignancy much closer to the heartaches and joys of the real world than we may be comfortable identifying with.

The Wolfpack

 

Cast: N/A

Director: Crystal Moselle

Running Time: 1 hour 30 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona 


There's a startling moment in Crystal Moselle's documentary The Wolfpack, where the six brothers who've mostly been trapped inside their Manhattan apartment their entire lives, recreate the opening song and dance number from The Nightmare Before Christmas. Donning home-made costumes while lighting a fire inside their cramped living quarters, it becomes increasingly clear that their adoration of movies may in some senses be a rebel cry against their domineering father. However, this moment, which is fraught with ritualistic joy as well as disturbing danger, is short-lived. Instead of adopting an inquisitive approach to such a scene, Moselle opts for impressionism, which may in fact be praised for it's fly-on-the-wall intimacy. Truthfully, the film already carries with it the hype of expectations, winning the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival and making it's subjects into cult-ready icons. Still, Moselle seems to think that the inherent strangeness of the situation and the affable personalities of her subjects will overcome a limited perspective, and while The Wolfpack has moments of bizarre power and surprising humor, it never dares to go beyond a simplistic reading of a complicated scenario.

The film follows the Angulos; Mukunda, Ksna, Jagadisa, Govinda, Bhagavan, and Narayana as they attempt to find normalcy by recreating scenes from their favorite films while being homeschooled by their mother and forbidden to leave their apartment by their elusive father. The access granted to Moselle is both a blessing and a curse; as she's able to capture moments of unguarded pain and creative naivete only teenagers without a grip on the outside world can conjure, but she also refuses to investigate her subject's predicament. The Angulos obsession with movies; particularly Tarantino's back catalog, creates an intriguing paradigm in which they reenact the script word for word, scene for scene, while dressing up and adopting appropriate accents. While watching them stage famous bits from Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs is undeniably engaging, the film never gets into why these are the types of films they latch onto and just how they've come to amass such a huge collection. It's hinted that their father Oscar, a recluse who abhors traditional society, planted the seeds for their love of cinema, but he remains an inconclusive patriarchal figure. Instead of asking the tough questions, Moselle simply layers a moody score over home video footage of Oscar, presenting him as a possibly abusive boogeyman and his wife (a former hippie from the Midwest) as an unfortunate casualty of his worldview. This sense of foreboding finds its functionality in how the six brothers (all pretty indistinguishable, which is probably the point) eventually gain their independence and desire to explore beyond the confines of their claustrophobic home. As subjects, the Angulo clan are bright, socially awkward, and similar to a lot of other nerdy teens who feel like outcasts. Only here, societal ostracism is due to being sheltered from the mundane horrors of everyday New York existence.

Strangely, the very rules that Moselle sets up early on in the film; the sense of fear and paranoia the boys feel from disobeying their father's wishes, simply falls by the wayside later on. It's odd that when each of them respectively decides to leave and venture into the world at large, Oscar doesn't seem that phased by it. Instead, he not only allows them to leave, but also shares in their experiences. All of this, among other socio-economic and psychological issues, feels underdeveloped to the point of exacerbation. If Moselle simply wanted to create an atmospheric mood piece rather than an investigative expose, then that's clearly her right, but it ultimately does a disservice to her subjects. This is a story in which we as the audience should know just how Moselle came in contact with these brothers and the trajectory that led them to eventually break free. Instead, the film feels incomplete and rushed, with shaky timelines and nervous editing replacing clarity.

This is all a shame, of course, since the Angulo brothers are a fascinating mixture of wide-eyed optimism, closeted insecurities, and unchecked creativity longing to expand their horizons. Maybe one day they will all make their own films. Maybe they will sink into domestic life and raise families. Maybe they will take square desk jobs and become everything their father despises. Either way, their complex life experiences demand a more thorough examination than a film like The Wolfpack ultimately provides.

The Falling

 

Cast: Maisie Williams, Florence Pugh, Maxine Peake, Greta Scacchi, Monica Dolan, Joe Cole

Director: Carol Morley

Running Time: 1 hour 40 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


Coming-of-age story, sexual awakening melodrama, psychological teen horror film--where exactly writer-director Carol Morley's The Falling fits into the genre spectrum is debatable, but what's most interesting is the way Morley (formerly a documentarian) attempts to get at something universal through suggestion and atmosphere rather than standard plotting. There's a kind of deranged, hermetically sealed environment at the center of the story taking place at an all-girls school circa 1969, which hints at more insidious (possibly supernatural) undertones. Using discordant editing, atmospheric transitions, and a folksy score by Everything But The Girl's Tracey Thorn, The Falling curbs liberally from Peter Weir's Picnic at Hanging Rock and Sofia Coppola's The Virgin Suicides, both superior representations of similar themes, but nonetheless remains a darkly comic and unnerving experience before falling apart in its final reel. It's a film which posits intriguing notions about the wonder and confusion regarding encroaching adulthood and shared psychic trauma, only to cop out in an unconvincing stab at explaining everything. It's almost as if the picture's third act was modulated to please test audiences allergic to ambiguity.

The film centers on the friendship between 16-year-old Lydia (Maisie Williams from Game of Thrones) and Abbie (Florence Pugh in a striking debut), two young girls whose rejection of the repressive English school norms formulates both their developing worldview as well as their burgeoning sexuality. Abbie has recently lost her virginity, which creates something of a barrier between her and the other girls at the school, and beyond the mandated long skirts and rules against smoking, Abbie's transition creates a confusing dichotomy for Lydia, especially considering her brother (Joe Cole) is also smitten with the fetching blonde beauty. There's also familial strife in the form of Lydia's catatonic mother (Maxine Peake, looking like she wandered in from a David Lynch film) and the usual stiff-lipped conservative matriarchs of the school (including Greta Scacchi as a stern teacher). When tragedy strikes, Lydia's world goes into a tailspin, triggering bizarre fainting spells amongst the young girls throughout the school. The sight of near-orgasmic collapsing bodies is deemed "hysterical contagion" by doctors, promoting suspicion that there's some kind of mass suggestion going on, similar to what a skilled stage hypnotist can conjure. But what's really going on here? The strength of Morley's direction, accentuated by Williams' impressively twitchy performance and cinematographer Agnes Godard's painterly lensing, is that it's never exactly clear why these strange things are occurring and to what extent it may be something more otherworldly.

Of course, after multiple scenes of mass swooning while horrified teachers look on, it becomes clear that Morley has very little actual narrative to wade through. Lyrical atmosphere over predictable story structure can be a good thing, and there's something refreshing about Morley's refusal, at least for the first two acts, to spoonfeed the audience, but the stylistic noodling begins to wear out its novelty after a while. Meanwhile, Tracey Thorn's score--lush, folksy, and unbearably twee, feels jarringly out of place within the context of a story that calls for a more rumbling, mood-based sonic assault. The idea of pervading female sexuality creeping into the prim and proper confines of late 60s English countryside is interesting, and Williams really nails Lydia's conflicting emotions--from confusion, awe, anger, to undeveloped sexuality. However, whatever erie spell the film may have cast for it's first two thirds completely deflates once Lydia's torrid backstory is unearthed, culminating in a final scene between mother and daughter that feels wholly tacked on. In a way, The Falling conjures a kind of weirdly comical evocation of adolescent angst mixed in with the British horror tradition (there are nods to the films of Ken Russell and The Wicker Man), but never quite reaches the transcendent heights to which it aspires.

Amour Fou

 

Cast: Birte Schnöink, Christian Friedel, Stephan Grossman

Director: Jessica Hausner

Running Time: 1 hour 36 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


"It was hell that gave me this half-talent of mine: Heaven grants a whole one or none at all."

This is a line once uttered by poet and playwright Heinrich von Kleist; a gloomy, possibly mentally ill gentleman who fired a bullet at his friend Henriette Vogel and then turned the pistol on himself. Writer-director Jessica Hausner uses the foundation of this real-life tale to create something closer to a black comedy of social conventions than the grim tale of love and misery one might expect. Of course, there's plenty of doom and gloom here; exemplified by the tight corsets, hermetically sealed interiors, and drab dinner parties, but there's also a sly daftness to the behavior that both represents a snapshot of 18th Century German life while also subverting it. In a way, Amour Fou wraps our perceived expectations about doomed period-piece romances inside formally daring mise-en-scène that derives comic possibilities out of upper-class malaise.

Hausner's film takes place in 1811 Berlin, and introduces us to Henrich (Christian Friedel) a narcissistic author who yearns for a partner who will join him in a suicide pact, and Henriette (Birte Schnöink), a woman married to a docile businessman (Stephan Grossman) whose straight-laced demeanor suggests a rather passionless union born more out of societal need than love. Henriette is an unabashed fan of Henrich's writing, and yet she balks at his suicide proposal on multiple occasions, to which the man responds with varying degrees of dismay and teenage-like rejection. Things change, however, once Henriette falls ill with a possibly life-threatening disease. Her thinking is that by joining Henrich in his myopic death wish, she will somehow face the end with a grandiose flourish.

Amour Fou is less about love or death or even passion, but rather a coy deconstruction of the self-obsessed romantic hero often found in period dramas pining for his one true love. Henrich (whose portrayed by Friedel as a whimpering, pathetic loser) is using the convention of romanticism as a means of feeding his own inflated ego. The fact that he not only tries to woo Henriette, but also his own cousin (who often placates him with comic relish), is indicative of his seemingly never-ending capacity for narcissism. Meanwhile, Schnöink's Henriette is an altogether more mysterious character; by turns submissive and fiercely independent, with a longing for more excitement than her rigid lifestyle allows while still remaining cautious about taking too bold of a risk. At times, she seems aware of Henrich's childish pessimism, while at others, there's a sense that she's being carefully coerced into something she doesn't fully understand. To their credit, neither Hauser nor Schnöink completely explains what motivates Henriette, leaving it up to the audience to formulate their own interpretation.

In terms of formal style, Hauser shows a real gift for static long shots in which the stifling behavior of the characters match the aristocratic dioramas. Many scenes play out against detailed German interiors with characters sitting politely, sipping tea, and engaging in awkwardly formal conversations that often hint at more lascivious intentions. Elitism, taxation, and literature are discussed at length, often with pompous disdain or banal neutrality. There's something toxically funny about how ridiculous these conversations are--mired in faux politeness and sluggish domesticity--that deftly aligns with Hauser's rigid aesthetic. The director presents situations and characters that could be read as deadly serious, but then slightly heightens the absurdity until you realize that what you're actually watching is a revisionist historical farce. Surely, mental illness and suicide are no laughing matter, and Hauser never seems to be mocking her characters, but there's a definite jab being made at the idea of lavish period piece romanticism (especially in regards to doomed lovers) that makes the film simultaneously provocative and humorous.

Amour Fou is such a claustrophobic encapsulation of high privilege, repression, and aristocratic good manners that by the time the ending comes, it still manages to shock despite the inevitability. One desperately hopes that Henriette, and to a lesser degree Henrich, can break free of their oppressive milieu and lead more fulfilling lives. The sensation of ennui that pervades the entirety of the film becomes almost unbearable near the end, where the combination of monotonous misery and deadpan humor culminates in something close to poignancy. Henriette, despite the inflexible culture surrounding her, feels like a real person; a disfranchised woman living in a patriarchal society in which her worth is predicated on the whims of a delusional emasculated male, which makes her ultimate downfall all the more tragic. Given the film's overriding examination of lives governed by suffocating social rules, the ending is a surprisingly powerful reminder that human suffering (not to mention laughing in the face of misery), goes far beyond high-class austerity.

Slow West

 

Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Michael Fassbender, Ben Mendelsohn, Caren Pistorius, Rory McCann

Director: John Maclean

Running Time: 1 hour 24 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona


"Let's drift." This is a line delivered by dashing outlaw Silas Selleck (Michael Fassbender) to runaway Scottish teenager Jay Cavendish (Kodi Smit-McPhee), who is searching for the love of his life across the barren landscape of the American frontier, circa 1870. But the sentiment could just as easily be applied to writer-director John Maclean's debut Slow West overall; an archly photographed, meandering Western that seeks to subvert expectations, but instead comes off silly and contrived. This is a film that draws attention to its forced eccentricities and faux-artsy compositions, reveling in its "cool factor" without ever stopping to think whether it makes sense for the story.

In this case, there isn't much story to begin with, but that's not really a problem since most Westerns are sparse affairs. The bulk of the narrative involves Silas chaperoning Jay en route to find Rose Ross (Caren Pistorius) and her father, John (Rory McCann), both of whom have a price on their heads. Though it's obvious Jay is smitten with Rose, Silas's intentions are much murkier, at least initially, and Fassbender plays the gruff outlaw with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. There are obstacles along the way; meetings with strange travelers, a shootout at a dingy store, oncoming storms, and run-ins with a deranged bounty hunter named Payne (Ben Mendelsohn) that suggests Maclean is riffing on the old adage of "it's about the journey, not the destination", but neither option is all that compelling. Ultimately, there isn't much tension between Silas and Jay on their expedition, and the suspense regarding whether or not the man without a home is simply aiding the love-struck boy for his own ends once they arrive at their destination isn't really in question either. Truthfully, Maclean wants to toy with our mythologizing of the old West, adding in small grace notes concerning race and destiny, but it mainly feels as if he's fetishizing such themes rather than exploring them. Certainly, the Western is ripe for subversion (Jim Jarmusch's Dead Man springs immediately to mind), but Maclean lacks the formal rigor and intellectual conviction to contextualize his fairytale-like vision of frontier life into something illuminating.

Ultimately, Slow West is more concerned with camera placement and a quirky string-plucked score than illustrating anything revealing about this time and place in history. This is not to say that the film must be realistic or beholden to pre-set historical accuracy; only that it's sense of heightened absurdity should be grounded in rules (no matter how fanciful) that audiences can understand. Maclean leans heavily on macabre humor, and while some bits; (two riders on horseback stretching out a clothes line, for instance) elicit a chuckle, the film's cavalier response to death suggests Maclean is afraid to push his film into more daringly poignant directions. For the most part, the actors do a fine job with subpar material, but it seems criminal to cast multi-talented thesps like Fassbender and Mendelsohn and then give very little to do other than pose and play dress up. For example, a strangely erotic encounter between Silas and Payne as they stumble around in a drunken frenzy hints at their character's past history, but the scene is over just as it starts to get interesting. Meanwhile, Maclean seems to derive pleasure from withholding the essential elements of the genre; revenge, honor, poverty, aimlessness, in favor of atmospheric noodling and eccentric humor, but all of this seems integral aesthetically rather than dramatically. Additionally, though cinematographer Robbie Ryan's panoramic lensing is often striking; with breathtaking shots of wide open vistas and dusty landscapes, it also points to the film's ultimate shallowness. This is a great-looking picture with an empty core; a semi-satirical reworking of Western tropes pivoting on cartoony violence and archly stylized compositions.

Eventually, Slow West must arrive at the moment where Jay's naiveté comes crashing into the violent reality of every man for himself, but the film's bloody climax, though impressively staged, lacks the visceral power necessary for any of it to matter. Since the characters are all archetypes and the overall tone too cute by half, the high body count and ironic position Jay finds himself in by the end fails to elicit more than a shrug. The film is much too concerned with throwaway absurdity; (such as an extended montage delivered by a craggy old man concerning wanted posters and mistaken identity), to be bothered with creating a way into the characters. What's necessary for the picture to work tonally is that straddling of dark humor and intense drama; a tricky juggling act that filmmakers such as the Coen Brothers have spent their entire careers perfecting. Tommy Lee Jone's 2014 post-revisionist Western The Homesman is a more impressive example of what Maclean is trying to accomplish here; a picture which boldly balanced black comedy and intense melodrama without ever losing sight of its characters. With Slow West, Maclean treats his actors like set decoration; just another prop set against carefully arranged tableaus, seen most bluntly during the third act shootout, where the precise framing of exploding spice jars is more important than the psychological state of those doing the shooting.