If Beale Street Could Talk

 

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Colman Domingo, Teyonah Parris, Michael Beach, Dave Franco, Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, Brian Tyree Henry

Director: Barry Jenkins

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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“I hope that nobody has ever had to look at anybody they love through glass.”

This line, spoken by Tish Rivers (KiKi Layne) while visiting her lover Alonso “Fonny” Hunt (Stephan James) at a prison visiting area, is at the heart of Barry Jenkins’s swooning adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel of the same name, If Beale Street Could Talk. The film’s understanding of Baldwin’s prose and ideological constructs informs the aesthetic choices (from characters looking directly into the camera), to the way emotional breakthroughs are delivered through literal and figurative obstacles. Above all, Jenkins (by way of Baldwin) gets at how America’s prejudices often obliterate the integrity of authentic love.

From the outset, If Beale Street Could Talk uses a fractured narrative which dips in and out of Tish’s recollections. Her pregnancy with Fonny’s child informs the structure, not to mention familial strife, even as Fonny remains in prison awaiting trial for the rape of a Puerto Rican woman, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios). Though he insists he didn’t commit the crime (and has various witnesses attesting to his alibi), the justice system is set up to incriminate African American men for simply living in a certain geographical area. During an early scene, Tish admits being pregnant to her mother, Sharon (Regina King) and father, Joseph (Colman Domingo), which creates a palpable sense of tension in the room. Tish’s body language is cautious, hesitant, and expecting the worse; she is, after all, young and unmarried, with the father of her child in jail. When her sister, Ernestine (Teyonah Parris) stands up and gives her a vote of confidence, things lead to an extraordinary sequence where Fonny’s judgmental mother (Aunjanue Ellis) attempts to use the Bible to shame and condemn, only to be beat down (literally) by Tish’s family unit. It’s a moment of startling pain and empathy; reaffirming the idea that no matter the hardships, we all need each other in order to survive.

As he did with Moonlight, Jenkins is working in an impressionistic register; informing scenes with a melancholy sweep which gives us an emotional headspace in which to internalize the narrative. The dreamy aesthetic works both as a shorthand for love’s unpredictable ebb and flow, as well as conjuring an almost displaced sense of time. Rather than using stylistic flourishes as empty posturing, however, Jenkins situates the lyricism as a means for tapping into darker, more uncomfortable truths. For example, a shot where Sharon arrives at an airport in Puerto Rico is filmed in a tableau bursting with color and slow-motion, emphasizing the mother’s stern determination to save her daughter’s situation. The very next scene, however, upends this by showing her fidgeting uneasily with a variety of wigs in order to appear more confident. It’s a heartbreaking moment, and King (who is sublime throughout) absolutely nails the combination of desperation and pathos.

There are other times where the film achieves this kind of balance, such as a long conversation between Fonny and old school buddy Daniel (Brian Tyree Henry). While things begin jovially, the discussion takes a somber turn once Daniel begins talking about his time in prison. His admission of white men being the devil and his irrevocable trauma for what he’s endured locates the sense of hopelessness African Americans feel while navigating a system built to subjugate them. Therefore, Jenkins’s film is not only a tragic love story, but also a portrait of the dehumanization (physically and spiritually) people of color experience through America’s racist systems.

At times, If Beale Street Could Talk traffics in stereotypes (Ed Skrein’s racist cop, Diego Luna’s saintly Hispanic waiter, and Dave Franco’s woke Jewish realtor come to mind), but such archetypes simply reinforce the different forces swirling around Tish and Fonny’s romantic courtship. There are evil forces in the world, and benevolent ones. There are also innocent forces, as evident in the birth of Tish and Fonny’s child, who wails at a world ready to devour him. This duality; of tragedy and hope—where the father remains unlawfully caged while the child roams freely— is central to Baldwin’s mix of cynicism and conviction. For his part, Jenkins honors this ideology while also making something that feels very much his own; full of life, love, and heartbreak.

The Favourite

 

Cast: Olivia Colman, Emma Stone, Rachel Weisz, Nicholas Hoult

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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No one is ever going to accuse Yorgos Lanthimos of selling out and going Hollywood, but his latest effort, The Favourite, is probably the closest he’s ever come to making a crowd-pleaser. With a streamlined script from Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara, the Greek auteur’s penchant for meandering storytelling (as seen in films like Dogtooth and The Lobster) has been reigned in, though he certainly doesn’t skimp on the arty flourishes. With flashes of anachronistic costuming, foul-mouthed dialogue, and comedic detours, The Favourite is mostly an off-beat lark, though what’s most surprising here is just how much Lanthimos actually shows empathy for his characters.

Taking place in the early 18th century, the film follows the gout-infested, childish Queen Anne (Olivia Colman), her closest friend and secret lover, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), and Sarah’s cousin, Abigail (Emma Stone), who has survived multiple horrors in order to arrive at Kensington Palace seeking employment. Upon learning of the Queen and Sarah’s clandestine romantic relationship, Abigail hatches a scheme to seduce the Queen as a power move to climb up the royal ranks. What follows is a lively, if surprisingly straightforward (for Lanthimos), three-way costume/character drama. There are elements of Whit Stillman’s Love & Friendship in the modernized banter, and even Albert Serra’s tragicomic The Life and Death of Louis XIV in the depiction of silly wigs and deteriorating bodies. However, Lanthimos doesn’t completely trust the screenplay’s subversive streak and occasionally gets in his own way; using a variety of low-angle camera placements, fish eye lenses, and showy whip pans.

The aesthetic garishness of The Favourite is only mildly annoying, seeing as how the film really exists as a showcase for three sublime performances. Colman pouts, whines, and acts like a spoiled child, but there’s a heartbreaking sense of arrested development as we learn little snippets of her past; including why she keeps 17 caged rabbits in her bedroom. A scene where she gorges on cake in between bouts of inconsolable tears is both disturbing and funny, which is exactly the tone Colman strikes throughout. Weisz, meanwhile, probably has the film’s most deliciously mean-spirited dialogue, and she delivers it with swaggering confidence that we later learn is somewhat of a mask for the genuine feelings she has for the queen. Stone uses the familiarity audiences have with her screen presence to disarming effect as she plots, schemes, and undergoes the movie’s most satisfying character arc. Nicholas Hoult’s supporting turn as young minister Robert Harley is also worth noting as the lone male figure with prominent screen time; a powdered dandy with power who underestimates all three women and becomes, in a nice gender reversal, something of an emasculated pawn.

The Favourite features a twisted love triangle which also happens to include a waging war with France, increased taxes, and broader issues lurking just outside the confines of the royal court. Lanthimos seems most interested in the private tug-of-war between the three women, which includes a “sex positive” queerness angle which plays refreshingly matter-of-factly, but after an intriguing buildup, the film refuses to push into unexpected territory during the third act. Perhaps it’s a compliment that Lanthimos doesn’t embrace his inner weirdness as an alienating construct like much of his past work, but instead, trusts his actors to provide most of the engagement. However, just when you think he may be going for softball ending, the final shot refracts everything we’ve seen into a nightmarish hall of mirrors; reinforcing the notion that when it comes to power, human beings really are grotesque animals.

Vox Lux

 

Cast: Natalie Portman, Raffey Cassidy, Jude Law, Stacy Martin, Jennifer Ehle, Christopher Abbott

Director: Brady Corbet

Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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There’s a potentially provocative idea at the heart of Brady Corbet’s Vox Lux, visualized during the opening moments in which a school shooting massacre launches the career of a girl who survived the incident. There’s something perverse about the collision of pop culture and violence, and the way in which Celeste (Raffey Cassidy) and her sister Eleanor (Stacy Martin) pen a song in memory of their slain friends which becomes an anthem for a grieving nation. As Willem Dafoe’s omnipresent narrator explains, Celeste changes the “I” to “we,” in the song’s chorus; reconfiguring personal pain as universal. The tune turns into a chart-topping hit, thrusting Celeste into pop stardom guided by her scuzzy manager (Jude Law). However, the notion of pop culture’s relation to mental illness or national tragedies is never fully explored, and instead Vox Lux becomes a rather thin pop star in decline narrative; complete with a grown up Celeste (Natalie Portman) struggling with alcoholism and the trappings of fame.

Structured in three parts with foreboding titles like “Prelude 1999,” “Act I: Genesis 2000-2001,” and “Regenesis 2017,” Vox Lux takes a lot of time going nowhere while saying nothing particularly of interest. By framing Celeste’s introduction into celebrity culture around the wide-ranging tide of history (911 is mentioned fleetingly), and a present day terrorist attack where the assailants don masks similar to ones used in one of Celeste’s early music videos, Corbet ends up replicating the very things he’s denouncing. Vox Lux is about the emptiness of the pop culture machine and how people who become famous at an early age never mature emotionally beyond that point, which is exemplified by Portman’s grating performance as a star in meltdown mode. Taking on a generic New Jersey accent and flailing about with calculated gestures, Portman’s acting here is unintentionally hilarious. Meanwhile, the film’s commentary on the superficiality of celebrity is laughably self-serious (complete with Dafoe’s philosophical narration and Scott Walker’s thunderous score), without any satirical humor to offset the somber tone.

The film’s final act involves Celeste’s return to her home town of Stanton Island for a concert. There’s a forced reconciliation with her estranged sister Ellie (still played by Stacy Martin) and her daughter Albertine (played by Raffey Cassidy, aka the young Celeste). There’s an extended scene where mother and daughter go to a diner where she berates a fan, and a throwaway line of dialogue mentioning a car accident settlement and racist tirade, but for the most part, Corbet steers away from anything resembling psychological depth. His real aim seems to be to approximate the kind of disposable narrative arcs regarding celebrities which have become commonplace. To that end, the climax is an extended concert where Portman robotically dances, thrusts, and belts out generic pop bangers flanked by glittery, sci-fi inspired backup dancers. Corbet wants to thumb his nose at pop culture’s brutality and the “branding” of American life, but sadly, he lacks any real understanding of how pop music actually functions in society.

Vox Lux is the kind of anti-poptimist vehicle which is just as vapid as say, the angle of A Star is Born, where pursuing one’s artistic dreams is all that matters. As a distillation of how pain, tragedy, and self-destruction is good for pop branding, Vox Lux is banal, glib, and condescending; adopting the same signifiers it’s seeking to condemn. At one point, the young Celeste says, “I don’t want people to have to think too hard, I just want them to feel good.” By contrast, Corbet also doesn’t want people to have to think too hard. He just wants them to feel bad.

Roma

 

Cast: Yalitza Aparicio, Marina de Tavira, Marco Graf, Fernando Gregiaga, Daniela Demesa, Carlos Peralta, Nancy Garcia, Jorge Antonio Guerrero

Director: Alfonso Cuarón

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The introductory shot of Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is minimal yet ostentatious. The frame is fixed on a cobble stone street as water sloshes back and forth, creating a mirror which captures a plane flying overhead. As the camera tilts upward revealing a maid cleaning dog feces off the driveway, the image becomes a microcosm of the ways in which the film will straddle the line between authenticity and wistful impression. It’s the kind of opening salvo only a filmmaker of Cuarón’s caliber could pull off, and yet it emphasizes his tendency toward affected formalism. In films like Children of Men and Gravity, Cuarón proved his ability to stage mind-boggling tracking shots and uninterrupted long takes, and Roma is filled with this kind of showboating, albeit in a more minor key.

The story here concerns the maid from the opening image, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), who works for the family of Dr. Antonio (Fernando Grediaga), a mysterious man who is constantly away from home. The man’s wife, Sofia (Marina de Tavira), and their children live in luxury, but the absence of the patriarch haunts nearly every scene. Cuarón frames the narrative through the perspective of Cleo, though we do get a sense of the family’s point of view, which is further complicated by the film’s detached aesthetic. Cleo is often dwarfed in compositions, looking insignificant amongst the spiraling staircases of the family home, and in one particular shot, appearing as a tiny speck in the frame while watching a martial arts training session.

Cleo is basically a surrogate mother for the children, and the performance of first time actor Aparicio is a tremendous feat of natural mannerism, facial expression, and gesture. When she has to deliver more emotionally fraught scenes late in the film, she is also fully believable, but Cuarón thankfully doesn’t overburden her with melodramatic hysterics. Instead, Cleo represents a somewhat angelic symbol of servitude and class division, which Cuarón often captures through stunning visuals; such as one key shot where the camera floats upwards revealing a throng of maids hanging clothes on rooftops of lavish homes stretching far into the distance.

There’s melodramatic elements to Roma, including familial infidelity, but Cuarón’s studied aesthetic approach keeps sentimentality at bay. The formal tics on display, such as how the camera moves slowly across rooms in rigid pans, is almost comical, but perhaps that’s partially the point. Even though the film gets all the period appropriate details right— the 1970s clothing, home decor, architecture, bustling Mexico City streets—the way the camera takes everything in feels somehow removed from reality. The crisp black and white cinematography is gorgeous, but it’s also the vision of someone accessing their memories and presenting an evocative version of these recollections. This makes Cleo’s station in life all the more helpless, as if she’s not fully in control of her own story. In this way, Roma can be read as an auto-critique in which Cuarón is questioning his own privilege while also paying tribute to the woman who raised him.

Without an auteurist reading where Cuarón is infiltrating Cleo’s story in order to comment on his own guilt, Roma might play as a film where the main character is a hollow cipher. The picture lacks a sense of spontaneity and lived-in authenticity, even as all the visual details ring true. This push and pull between honoring this woman and making her into an angelic symbol creates a fascinating dynamic, foregrounded by an aesthetic which tries to overcompensate for Cleo’s lack of an inner life. However, the film works as well as it does because of Aparicio’s unforced truthfulness. Despite Cuarón’s ornate precision, Aparicio grounds everything. She is the voice worth listening to. Hers is the life worth caring about.


Widows

 

Cast: Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki, Cynthia Erivo, Colin Farrell, Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya, Robert Duvall, Liam Neeson, Garret Dillahunt, Carrie Coon, Jacki Weaver, Jon Bernthal, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Lukas Haas, Matt Walsh, Kevin J. O'Connor, Michael Harney

Director: Steve McQueen

Running time: 2 hours 10 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Steve McQueen is a renowned visual artist, and if he wasn’t already an Oscar-winning director, he’d be doing just fine on the art gallery circuit. The austere manner of his filmmaking; with those precise compositions, intricate mise-en-scène, and artful posing of actors within the frame, has helped him gain traction as a legitimate auteur with films like Hunger, Shame, and 12 Years a Slave (for which he netted that Academy Award). When word leaked he would be adapting a 1980’s British miniseries and trying his hand at the heist genre, there were reasons to be worried. Would McQueen forgo genre excitement by luxuriating in self-serious political metaphors, or could he actually let rip with a popcorn crowd-pleaser?

Well, the answer is a bit of both. What’s noteworthy about Widows is that McQueen has indeed made a commercially-minded film that also doesn’t skimp on his artistry. There’s a heist involved, but the movie really isn’t about the heist. There is action, but this is not primarily an action picture. Instead, McQueen and co-writer Gillian Flynn focus more on the collision between modern day Chicago politics, class division, neoliberal racism, and the inner lives of the characters. It’s apparent during the opening moments that this will be a different breed of thriller as scenes of Veronica Rawlins (Viola Davis) and her husband, Harry (Liam Neeson) passionately kissing in bed is cross-cut with a getaway gone wrong where Harry and his team of criminals die at the hands of police. From there, the focus shifts to the men’s spouses struggling to survive after the fallout, including Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), whose clothing store is seized by bookies due to her husband’s debts, and Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), an abused woman encouraged by her mother (Jacki Weaver) to sign up for an escort service catering to affluent men.

McQueen and Flynn’s screenplay sets up a large network of characters, shows us their allegiances, and then methodically allows the plot to move forward with a series of vignettes highlighting some particular form of sociopolitical unrest. Crucial power players include Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), a crime boss hoping to get out of the game by running for political office, his sociopath brother (Daniel Kaluuya) who doles out punishment in menacing fashion, and their immediate competition, Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell), who hopes to continue the dynasty of his racist father (Robert Duvall). When Jamal shows up at Veronica’s home informing her that Harry robbed $2 million from his campaign fund and that she has one month to pay back the debt, she locates one of Henry’s notebooks with details of a planned heist and decides to take matters into her own hands.

There is a lot going on in Widows, and there are times when the narrow scope of the feature-length format limits some of McQueen’s ambitions. This is one of those rare instances where one wishes the film were even longer in order to accommodate the mix of intimate character drama and sprawling The Wire-esque narrative. Still, cinematographer Sean Bobbitt does wonders within the confines of the film’s running time; elegantly framing scenes through mirrors and planes of glass in order to give us multiple viewpoints of the action. Probably the most ostentatious shot has the camera locked down on the hood of Farrell’s car as he leaves a rally in a poor section of town only to drive a few blocks away to the wealthier district. As the camera slowly pivots, the class disparity is clear; as is the partly shrouded face of the black driver who must silently endure the white politician’s discriminatory rant. Such visual touches occur throughout, and are never used for showboating purposes, but instead to deepen the film’s overriding themes.

Once Veronica begins recruiting her team to pull off the $2 million heist, which includes Linda, Alice, and late arrival Belle (Cynthia Erivo), a ripped babysitter with a jogging streak, Widows leans into its genre trappings with satisfying results. There’s legitimate tension, for example, in the actual heist, even as the sequence itself fairly brief in terms of screen time, but the biggest thrills here are character-driven. The scenes where Henry’s Jamal and Farrell’s Mulligan face off are razor-sharp, Kaluuya’s dead-eyed stare and penchant for violence is chilling, and Davis conveys so much emotion through her face (from grief, confusion, anger, and finally, contentment) that Veronica emerges as a fully flawed woman worth rooting for. The film’s one major mistake involves a framing device with a significant character seen only in flashback who meets an untimely demise at the hands of police. It’s an instance where McQueen and Flynn are trying too hard to press timely political signifiers into an already busy narrative, and the emotional fallout of this thread feels awkwardly handled.

Rather than simply apply an arthouse aesthetic to a standard heist plot, McQueen fully commits to his commercial tendencies by buying into the narrative and most importantly, his characters. In this way, Widows lacks the kind of sniffy looking down on genre one often gets when prestige filmmakers try their hand at mainstream fare. There are important sociopolitical issues threading throughout Widows, but the film isn’t weighed down by their importance. Instead, the social context can be found by simply watching women fight back against a system built to keep them down, and maybe even having the balls to pull it off.




The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

 

Cast: Tim Blake Nelson, Willie Watson, David Krumholtz, James Franco, Stephen Root, Ralph Ineson, Liam Neeson, Harry Melling, Tom Waits, Zoe Kazan, Bill Heck, Grainger Hines, Jackamoe Buzzell, Tyne Daly, Brendan Gleeson, Jonjo O'Neill, Saul Rubinek, Chelcie Ross

Director: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen

Running time: 2 hours 13 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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A case could made that Joel and Ethan Coen are drawn to the western genre because it allows for the ultimate display of misanthropy. Tales of greed, revenge, loneliness, and brutal violence are key factors, as is the expansive vistas of America revealing death at nearly every turn. Though classic westerns often revel in the heroism of its grizzled heroes, the Coens have used such archetypes in order to plum the depths of cynical human behavior. Their debut, Blood Simple, couched western archetypes under the veneer of neo-noir atmosphere. Raising Arizona has the zany trappings of a stoner comedy, but with the widescreen Midwestern landscapes of a romanticized western. True Grit is actually a pure homage to John Ford and Howard Hawks which uses its status a remake to recontextualize western mythos. No Country for Old Men is a brilliantly pensive adaptation of Cormac McCarthy which views Modern America as more ruthless than the old west. And so on it goes. The Coens have always been fascinated by the ways in which the genre can speak to the fatalistic nature of our miserable existence, and their latest shaggy-dog anthology, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, is no exception.

Structured around six separate stories, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs refuses the revisionist angle, instead leaning into western tropes as a means for folkloric retellings. Though tonally divergent and varying in length, each vignette essentially hammers home the Coens career methodology; i.e. that human kind are a distrustful lot who will stab you in the back if given the chance. The universe is cruel, chaotic, and unforgiving, and though there are innocent souls wandering about, they are not immune to the marching tides of fate. In fact, death may even come for them sooner.

The idea of humanity as a scourge is given an ironic wink in the first story, where Tim Blake Nelson plays the guitar-playing, crooning gunslinger of the film’s title. Wandering into town while delivering deadpan monologues to the camera with mentions of nicknames such as “The Misanthrope”, the Coens lean into their silly, parodic side with quippy banter and extreme violence. It’s a 20 minute lark; funny and irreverent, but also oddly impersonal; with a washed-out visual look and fake-looking digital blood. In the second section, James Franco and Stephen Root show up for a slapstick joint about a bank robber with terrible luck, filmed like a Sergio Leone western and ending with a darkly ironic final line. It’s an effective short film, playing like a Twilight Zone-styled yarn, but much like the first story, there isn’t much here beyond a clever punchline.

Probably the most fascinating vignette is the third one where an armless, legless actor (Harry Melling) and his crotchety boss (Liam Neeson), travel the countryside in search of fame and fortune. Here, the Coens marry their patented solipsism with heartbreaking melancholy; resulting in something which resists easy classification, even if the ending is predictably nihilistic. From there, we get a disheveled Tom Waits as a gold prospector digging holes in search of gold, Zoe Kazan as a wide-eyed young woman in a caravan en route to Oregon, and finally, a pair of travelers stuck in a carriage (among them Tyne Daly and Brendan Gleeson) which plays almost like an Edgar Allen Poe short story. Since all of the tales set up characters with hopes or dreams (however fleeting) only to have them dashed through bursts of violence or twists of fate, there isn’t much emotional investment. Even the lone drawn-out section in which Kazan’s innocent traveler seeks a better life in Oregon is predicated on the same ironic climax, so the sense of richer world-building here feels even more perfunctory.

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a hymn to the western in which death pervades every corner of the frame; sometimes in the form of a comical visual gag, sometimes under the guise of pathos for souls too kindly for this sadistic world. However skillfully conceived and wonderfully acted, this homage to western folklore, like most campfire stories, inevitably fizzles out into darkness of night. If the Coens are correct; that all of us are grasping for meaning in a meaningless existence predicated upon chance, then what is the point of storytelling in the first place? This is a question The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, much like Nelson’s wise-cracking titular wanderer, has no interest in. He’s more likely to shrug, laugh it off, and blow someone’s brains out.


The Other Side of the Wind

 

Cast: John Huston, Peter Bogdanovich, Oja Kodar, Susan Strasberg, Robert Random, Joseph McBride, Mercedes McCambridge, Cameron Mitchell, Paul Stewart, Edmond O'Brien, Lilli Palmer, Geoffrey Land, Peter Jason

Director: Orson Welles

Running time: 2 hours 2 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind is an incisive look at one of our most brilliant auteurs wrestling with the new wave of late 1960’s art cinema. Taking elements of his 1973 mocumentary F for Fake and bleeding it into a meta-deconstruction of the Hollywood machine, The Other Side of the Wind deflates patriarchal power while also basking in its privileges. It’s a film which began production in 1970 and then stretched on for nearly six years; ballooning out of control even as Welles seemed to relish the idea of never completing it. It’s a work of madness that has, at its center, a wounded heart; the story of an aging patriarch desperately trying to stay relevant as the world he helped shape disappears behind him. It is the vision of the ultimate Hollywood classist fearing his demise at the hands of a more politically radical wave of new cinema, and then attempting to outsmart them all.

The basic premise is this: Jake Hannaford (John Huston) an iconic director is celebrating his 70th birthday while attempting to complete a film entitled The Other Side of the Wind. The picture in question is one of those erotic narrative-less works recalling late 60’s hippie drug culture (ala Easy Rider) with the arty pretensions of a Michelangelo Antonioni joint. Despite his cigar-chomping ego, Hannaford is afraid of the younger batch of Hollywood elite; including Brooks Otterlake (Peter Bogdanovich), a filmmaker not unlike the real-life Bogdanovich, who at this time would have been riding a wave of success from The Last Picture Show. Out of money and missing his leading man, John Dale (Robert Random), who stormed off set after multitude abuses by the filmmaker, Hannaford’s aims are to leach funds from producers at the party, even if no one involved seems to have any idea what The Other Side of the Wind is actually about.

Structured like a shaggy hang out movie, Welles’s virtuosic techniques come together to create a disorienting atmosphere where multiple realities converge. As Hannaford encourages the press to film his birthday bash, we get bodies scurrying everywhere; with cameras in nearly every inch of the frame and lenses zooming. The effect is like a three-ring circus gone awry, predating reality TV and Internet culture. Once again, in both style and form, Welles was way ahead of the curve here, even as narrative coherency is mostly absent.

As someone obsessed with myth-making and his own status as a legend, Welles’s notion of cinema as one continuous loop of content is embraced with such gusto as to be prophetic. Throughout, the picture changes from color to black and white, incorporating a variety of film stocks and allowing bursts of light and motion to infiltrate the frame. Dialogue overlaps, the editing is propulsive and jagged, the score jazzy, and the use of montage breathtaking. The usual Welles technique of deep focus (in which the foreground, middle-ground and background are all in focus) are done away with altogether in lieu of frames-within-frames and compositions shot through refracted surfaces.

Throughout, we get long stretches of the unfinished Hannaford project where John Dale and an unnamed woman (Oja Kodar, Welles’s lover and co-writer) play a sensual game of cat and mouse. Phallic imagery abounds, as does psychedelic colors and an old man’s parodic vision of hippie youth culture. There’s a level of self-awareness here, exemplified by Hannaford’s arrogance in thinking he could really pull this kind of thing off, which extends to Welles’s grasping for relevance near the end of his career. And yet, sections of the Dale/Kodar film are ludicrously thrilling; including a bravura sex scene inside a moving vehicle, allowing Welles to achieve the rare carnal set piece which actually stimulates the senses.

Interestingly, the world Hannaford depicts onscreen is diametrically opposed to the one he actually inhabits. Though his party is filled with booze, cigars, and women, there is little chance of scoring. The only notable female character here, for instance, is a Pauline Kael stand-in played by Susan Strasberg, who is on hand to expose Hannaford’s inadequacies. In fact, he seems much more comfortable lording his power over men, including Bogdanovich’s Otterlake, and younger newcomers to the scene such as Dale. The self-destructive nature of Hannaford—his inability to complete the film while sabotaging working relationships and maintaining a god-like facade—is an intensely personal spilling of the soul by Welles, whom may have never completed another feature even if he had lived to tell the tale. In that way, The Other Side of the Wind has a haunting allure; a movie about creation, destruction, and self-loathing that works mostly because it remains unfinished.







Suspiria

 

Cast: Dakota Johnson, Tilda Swinton, Mia Goth, Lutz Ebersdorf, Angela Winkler, Ingrid Caven, Elena Fokina, Sylvie Testud, Renée Soutendijk, Chloë Grace Moretz, Jessica Harper

Director: Luca Guadagnino

Running time: 2 hours 32 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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One could say, if they were being charitable, that Luca Guadagnino’s remake/reimagining/cover version of Dario Argento’s 1977 classic Suspiria goes so far into its own direction as to be admirable. Whereas Argento’s film was an operatic fusion of dream logic and bright red gushing blood untethered to narrative coherency, Guadagnino’s take is downbeat, austere, and attempting to ground itself in reality. Argento used violence as an exaggerated series of garish images; a primal call to embrace the ludicrous exhilaration which the horror genre can attain. By comparison, the new Suspiria is self-serious nonsense made by talented people which fails to deliver on even the most basic horror movie level.

Having all the hallmarks of a passion project, Guadagnino’s film is overlong, meandering, and overstuffed with plot. Taking the skeletal narrative of the original and then diving into world-building isn’t inherently a mistake, but one has to parse through what the filmmaker has added here and question its existence. While it’s laudable Guadagnino refuses to ape Argento’s Giallo style (which would have been reductive), he nonetheless layers in pastiche of another sort. There’s a heavy Rainer Werner Fassbinder influence here; from the drab late 70’s Berlin setting to the use of crash zooms, but without the German wunderkind’s perverse humor and affinity for actors. Meanwhile, the fractured editing and kitschy post-production slow motion brings to mind the work of avant-garde filmmakers like Peter Greenaway and Derek Jarman. And if one is looking for less obscure influences, there’s a specific deep focus shot that’s ripped straight out of Brian De Palma’s Obsession. However, unlike De Palma, who often uses pastiche as a means for lurid entertainment value, Guadagnino seems almost terrified of entertaining the audience.

Suspiria is not a film about Susie (Dakota Johnson, purposefully affectless), the talented Mennonite dancer from Ohio who arrives at the Markos Dance Academy in Berlin, circa 1977. Nor is it about Susie’s relationship with Madame Blanc (Tilda Swinton, purposefully morose), her tightly wound teacher. The role of witchcraft, so prevalent in Argento’s original, is also not that important here, replaced by Guadagnino’s interest in political machinations. The film is really about Dr. Josef Klemperer (Swinton again, purposefully old and boring), a psychiatrist whose wife went missing during the Holocaust, and whose used here primarily as a narrative device to represent past atrocities. In fact, Guadagnino spends so much time with Klemperer as he investigates tales of witchcraft at the dance academy, that Suspiria could have alternately been titled Senior Coven Sleuth: The Movie, but that would also require a film with a sense of humor.

Every once in a while, Guadagnino finds a particular image or sequence that works; such as an extended dance scene using jagged cross-cutting and bone-snapping grotesquerie. However, as viscerally effective as such moments are, they are never tied to anything remotely compelling from either a character or narrative standpoint. They simply exist, devoid of the one thing that a truly great horror film can achieve; a sense of psychic dread. Suspiria is too formally up its own ass to care about involving us in this way; its badge of courage rests in pivoting away from base horror signifiers and talking down to an audience wanting genre thrills.

As Klemperer’s investigation begins to take the focus away from Susie’s dealings with the witches, Guadagnino’s real obsessions start to take center stage. Klemperer’s personal misery is a thematic sign-post about never forgetting the horrible atrocities human beings are capable of throughout history, and this exposition-heavy messaging completely derails the film. Meanwhile, Thom Yorke’s slowcore music is also a problem; especially when he starts morosely crooning over montages which feel utterly disproportionate to one another. Yes, it would have been a miscalculation to try and emulate Goblin’s brilliant prog-rock score from the original, but the Radiohead singer’s contributions here feel overly ostentatious.

As Suspiria draws to a close; complete with a bafflingly laughable (not in a good camp way) finale where the blood finally starts gushing, the film’s interest in Nazism, political violence, half-hearted nods to feminism, and (gulp) old man confessionals regarding dead wives tips the scales into the realm of embarrassment. What this Suspiria lacks is sensuality, danger, psychological insight, and horrific imagery linked to the kind of terror which tingles the spine (no, Holocaust metaphors don’t really fit the bill). Instead, we get a turgid, scare-free Red Army Faction/Lufthansa Flight 181 hijacking history lesson along with some leftover body horror scraps to nibble on. Sadly, the only spell cast by Guadagnino here is a steadily building sense of boredom.





Madeline's Madeline

 

Cast: Helena Howard, Miranda July, Molly Parker

Director: Josephine Decker

Running time: 1 hour 34 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Josephine Decker’s Madeline’s Madeline is a work of pure narcissism. And yet, all works of art are narcissistic extensions of their creators to varying degrees. The titular character (played by revelatory newcomer Helena Howard) may be a teenager at a New York theater company, but she’s so keenly aligned with Decker’s sensibilities that the fusion is never hidden from the audience. The notion that artistic creativity (not to mention risk-taking) can converge with real life experiences is at the center of the film, which purposefully veers away from traditional storytelling in order to conjure a state of emotional/psychological instability.

In a way, Howard’s breakthrough performance as a prodigy struggling with mental illness of some sort achieves the very thing Decker is attempting to capture aesthetically. But much like in real life, the messiness of glorifying the artist means there’s an insularity to Madeline’s Madeline which makes it frustratingly uneven. That filmic subjectivity— taking elements of the coming-of-age narrative and splintering it into emotional fragments—is fully on display here. The line between reality, art, and dreams is blurred; as are the edges of the frame shot in hazy hues. Decker’s roving camera is often so close to the actor’s faces as to produce claustrophobia. The soundtrack is layered with heavy breathing, out of sync dialogue, and clattering noise. Whether or not this works for particular audiences is up for grabs, but there’s no denying Decker’s commitment to purging Madeline’s psyche through cinematic techniques.

The film’s central dynamic rests between Madeline and her mother, Regina (Miranda July), whose relationship is complicated, to say the least. Then there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker), the theater director who seems to be steering her experimental play into the realm of Madeline’s personal life. The film’s central line, “What you are experiencing is just a metaphor” is spoken by multiple characters and recurs throughout; preparing us to take everything we see as subjective experience. When Madeline takes a scalding iron to her mother in one of her outbursts, for example, we are led to believe that it was either a dream or a projection of violence in order to impress her theater director. This kind of tension exists throughout Madeline’s Madeline, but there are times where Decker’s ambiguous posturing threatens to derail the emotional honesty of her film.

Near the climax, Madeline has a breakthrough of inner clarity in which she reenacts the supposed attack on her mother, and the unbridled energy of Howard’s performance absolutely sells the moment. For once, Madeline is not in control of her performative gifts. For once, the feeling of rejection from Regina is laid bare. Decker probably would have been wise to end her film there, but like her lead character, she just can’t help herself. Therefore, the finale; in which Madeline and her theater troupe retaliate against Evangeline by prodding her with cat masks and choreographed dance numbers in the streets, feels like the easy way out.

Of course, this wild explosion of artistic creation is meant to signify Madeline’s advancement, but it sidesteps the film’s more troubling questions. For one thing, she is still a child, and by extension, a narcissist. She cares only for her own thoughts and feelings. Evangeline, and to a lesser degree, Regina, are disparaged and then brushed aside. How could Madeline fulfill her artistic ambitions if her mother wasn’t at all supportive? Likewise, without Evangeline, she would have no artistic outlet at all. By fully embracing Madeline’s ego-driven mania, Decker understands the personal power of art, but also its limitations. And yet, for all its stylistic boldness and feral intensity, Madeline’s Madeline ultimately leans into art as therapy clichés instead of seriously dealing with a young woman’s disorienting coming-of-age.

Bad Times at the El Royale

 

Cast: Jeff Bridges, Cynthia Erivo, Dakota Johnson, Jon Hamm, Cailee Spaeny, Lewis Pullman, Chris Hemsworth, Nick Offerman, Xavier Dolan, Jim O'Heir

Director: Drew Goddard

Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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The titular setting for writer-director Drew Goddard’s latest genre exercise is a brilliant creation; full of garish wallpaper, kitschy carpets, neon signs, and a retro jukebox providing the film’s Motown-heavy soundtrack. Goddard is also a smart enough writer to infuse the hotel with an eerie atmosphere of past ghosts withering under the reign of Nixon, the Vietnam War, and the Mansion murders. Essentially an Agatha Christie-style mystery weaving a variety of characters together while also riffing on the structure of every post-modern thriller since Pulp Fiction, Bad Times at the El Royale boasts terrific performances and a cheeky premise, but ultimately veers off into goofy blood-splattered nonsense. It’s too bad, since Goddard has ambition and style to spare.

The film opens in 1969, where the El Royale is now a deserted wasteland when it used to be a bustling gambling hub. Run almost entirely by an awkward bellhop, Miles (Lewis Pullman), who gives each guest a prolonged pitch about the site’s iconic history straddling the California-Nevada border; the hotel has the vibe of being slightly out of time, which translates to a newly arriving group of strangers. There’s a priest (Jeff Bridges), a femme fatale with a secret (Dakota Johnson), a soul singer en route to Reno (Cynthia Erivo), and a traveling vacuum salesman (Jon Hamm), who all turn up one night for shelter. Of course, these are stock characters with ulterior motives, and Goddard initially has fun teasing out information about each one of them.

Once a hidden corridor running along one side of the hotel is discovered, Bad Times at the El Royale shifts from chamber drama into voyeuristic neo-noir, punctuated by moments of violence. Nothing is as it seems. No one can be trusted. Two-way mirrors provides moments of tension and ample excuses for Erivo to belt out doo-wop a cappella hits. As the camera snakes between rooms, we get pieces of each character’s backstories and how they ended up at the hotel. This gambit—complete with chapter breaks—is novelistic but also frustrating, since it stalls any sense of narrative momentum. In trying to deepen his character’s inner lives via flashback, Goddard loses the thread; forgetting that all we need to know is already being telegraphed through his very game cast of actors.

Once Chris Hemsworth’s swaggering cult leader, Billy Lee, enters the fray, Bad Times at the El Royale almost completely falls apart. Despite excellent turns from Pullman, Bridges, and especially Erivo, Hemsworth’s wannabe Manson clone takes over the film in a way which speaks to its larger issues as a self-critique of macho cruelty. This is exemplified in a scene where Erivo’s African American singer calls him out by saying “I’m bored of men like you” after he forces the remaining guests to indulge in a game of Russian roulette-style barbarity. The moment feels like Godard’s half-hearted concession to the #meToo movement, but plays somewhat embarrassingly since Hemsworth’s cult hippie eats away most of the third act’s running time.

Truthfully, Goddard may have gotten carried away by the success of his genre-defying previous feature, Cabin in the Woods. That was a film which actually subverted expectations while also being an entertaining horror comedy. Bad Times at the El Royale is too enamored by its own sleight-of-hand narrative gimmicks to be fully satisfying as either pulp trash or a stylish exercise. The hotel is a marvelous setting, but being trapped there for 140 minutes begins to feel like another kind of audience subversion; i.e. boredom.



22 July

 

Cast: Anders Danielsen Lie, Jonas Strand Gravli, Jon Øigarden, Isak Bakli Aglen, Maria Bock, Thorbjørn Harr, Seda Witt, Ola G. Furuseth, Hilde Olausson

Director: Paul Greengrass

Running time: 2 hours 23 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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If there was ever any doubt, the 2011 Norway attacks by Anders Behring Breivik that left 77 people dead was an unspeakable atrocity. The killer, a stone-cold sociopath (played by Anders Danielsen Lie) stockpiled weapons, disguised himself as a police officer, and gained access to an island where a Workers’ Youth League summer camp was being held. The subsequent aftermath, where Breivik was treated humanely by the Norwegian government while victims mourned the loss of loved ones, is the real aim of director Paul Greengrass’s retelling. Before we get there, however, there’s 40 minutes of goosed-up exploitation cinema to wade through. If United 93 was Greengrass’s visceral attempt at pummeling audiences into submission concerning an American tragedy, then 22 July cheaply uses a real-life Norwegian catastrophe as a soapbox for simplistic moralizing. 

During the film’s opening stretch, the film cuts between Breivik loading bombs and weaponry into an unmarked van and various high school students innocently enjoying themselves at summer camp. Using his typical hand-held shooting style, Greengrass ratchets up the tension by using standard movie suspense tactics, such as an ominous score and scenes where characters tearfully deliver speeches moments before death. All the while, Breivik prowls through the forest in wide shots reminiscent of a Peter Berg action thriller as he indiscriminately mows down victims fleeing for their lives.

One particular student comes into focus, Viljar (Jonas Strand Gravli), who delivers a speech about what he would do if he was Prime Minister shortly before the massacre. Meanwhile, the actual PM, Jens Stoltenberg (Ola G. Furuseth) is evacuated after a bomb planted by Breivik detonates outside a government building in Oslo. The rest of the film pivots into a blunt drama juxtaposing Viljar and Breivik; with the former learning how to walk again due to his gunshot injuries, while the later espouses his bigoted, though ideologically muddled, views.

During the third act, July 22 transforms into a courtroom procedural where family members of the deceased are forced to endure Breivik’s prepared statements while Vilijar undergoes rehab, laughably edited in montage like something out of the Rocky franchise. Greengrass may want his film to open up a dialogue about how and why someone like Breivik exists, but July 22 ends up coming across morally facile. The characters here feel like chess pieces for a political warning rather than human beings who actually suffered through this tragedy. The catharsis, therefore, is cheap. What is the point, after all, of dramatizing such a heinous event? There is little utility, whether artistic or political, in Greengrass’s approach here; rendering his film as yet another dramatic thriller trivializing actual human suffering.

First Man

 

Cast: Ryan Gosling, Claire Foy, Pablo Schreiber, Christopher Abbott, Ciarán Hinds, Ethan Embry, Kyle Chandler, Jason Clarke, Corey Stoll, Patrick Fugit, Shea Whigham, Lukas Haas, Cory Michael Smith, Brian d'Arcy James, Brady Smith, Philip Boyd

Director: Damien Chazelle

Running time: 2 hours 21 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Writer-director Damien Chazelle’s meteoric rise is a curious case. His feature debut, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench, showcased a cineliterate fondness for John Cassavetes and Jacques Demy, while his obsessive jazz drama Whiplash revealed a knack for propulsive editing and egotistical male protagonists. Of course, his bonafide breakthrough, La La Land, set its sights on reviving the MGM Hollywood musical while netting him a Best Director Academy Award in the process. At just 33 years of age, Chazelle has been likened to a wunderkind in the Steven Spielberg mold (though his films bare little resemblance to the king of pop cinema), leading him to attempt the most prestigious of all genres; the biopic.

Interestingly, Chazelle has chosen to forgo slick populist entertainment which usually wins Oscars in favor of an intimate drama about American hero Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling). Shot in a grainy, hand-held visual style not unlike early 70’s films, First Man demythologizes the American space program by shedding the jingoistic DNA of similar space flight pictures like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13. Tactile in its technical details while shaggy in plot, First Man is closer to the films of Christopher Nolan and Terrence Malick than Spielberg or Ron Howard.

Of course, Chazelle doesn’t have the anti-narrative poetry of Malick and lacks the discipline of Nolan on his best days. Still, Josh Singer’s spare screenplay does give him apple room to probe the mind of Armstrong as a man of few words whose reluctance at playing hero is telegraphed early and often. As played by Gosling in his patented stoic mode, Armstrong is taciturn and glum, but also obsessively driven; (i.e. a standard Chazelle male protagonist), and though the actor excels at capturing Armstrong’s inwardness, he fails to truly make us forget we are watching a performance. Call it the curse of being Gosling, but he’s just not someone who can effectively disappear into roles. Singer’s script also doesn’t do the film any favors by leaning too heavily on the biopic crutch of the dead child. The tragic death of Armstrong’s two-year-old daughter before he joined the NASA Astronaut Corps was certainly a major turning point in his life, but Chazelle’s insistence on using flashback and hallucination in which the child is consistently foregrounded begins to feel like the kind of lazy cliché he was probably hoping to avoid.

Meanwhile, Claire Foy gives a wonderfully raw performance as Janet Armstrong, but like most movies fixated on the lonely American male, her role is severely underdeveloped. Essentially at wit’s end due to her husband’s dangerous job and emotional vacantness, Coy is forced to cycle between a few basic modes; concern, tenacity, and warmth, but does so effectively. Other NASA contemporaries pop in and out, most notably Ed White (Jason Clarke), Buzz Aldrin (Corey Stoll) and Michael Collins (Lucas Haas), but this is ultimately Armstrong’s story. As such, it is a film unusually obsessed with process and procedure, not to mention grief.

Once the Apollo 11 reaches the surface of the moon, Chazelle treats us to images both awe-inspiring and eerie, but the real strength of First Man is its somber detachment from myth-making. Instead of pop culture pandering, the film reveals the terrifying reality of these endeavors (not to mention the human cost) where made-made vessels essentially sent human beings out into the vastness of space, possibly to die. Only a misguided moment on the moon’s surface which ties back into Armstrong’s anguish over the loss of his daughter feels like the kind of Ron Howard-esque swing into sentimentality Chazelle had otherwise been successful at curbing. In that moment, First Man feels like typical Hollywood awards bait. Otherwise, this is the rare prestige bummer movie where our American hero is sad and muted rather than gregarious and flag-waving.


Venom

 

Cast: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Scott Haze, Reid Scott, Jenny Slate

Director: Ruben Fleischer

Running time: 1 hour 52 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Ruben Fleischer’s frenzied take on one of Spiderman’s most iconic adversaries is essentially a romcom between spiraling hard-nosed reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy) and a gooey outer space mollusk speaking in gravelly tones. The idea of a man attempting to reconcile with a voice in his head and a “parasite” inside his body has all the trappings for sublime body horror/Lovecraftian weirdness, but Venom actually plays more like an early 2000’s comic book movie elevated slightly by Hardy’s goofy comic abilities. 

Through a flurry of early montages, we learn that Eddie Brock is a Vice-style investigator with his sights set on tech billionaire Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed), who is killing poor people throughout San Francisco via human trials wherein alien symbiotes bond with human hosts. Eddie gets the scoop by stealing confidential legal documents from his lawyer girlfriend, Anne (Michelle Williams), goes to Drake’s company for an interview to entrap him, and is quickly fired for his actions. There’s also a scientist working for Drake played by Jenny Slate whose mostly on hand to allow Eddie access to the compound’s quarantined zone where he inevitably bonds with the powerful alien life form.

If Venom’s first half is cluttered and plodding, then the middle section where Eddie and the creature become entangled does manage to find a comedic rhythm. This has little to do with Fleischer’s direction, which ranges from pedestrian to downright incoherent, and is entirely due to Hardy, who channels Nic Cage by way of Elmer Fudd with a riotous physical performance. A sequence where Eddie interrupts a lunch between Anne and her new surgeon boyfriend, Dan (Reid Scott), by chewing on seafood and immersing himself inside a lobster tank, is a prime example of an actor taking bland material and punching it up with all manner of tics, spasms, and funny faces.

The romcom elements of Eddie and Venom’s love-hate relationship is humorous for awhile, but Fleischer never settles on a consistent enough tone for this material to work over the long haul. Moving at a dizzying pace, Venom eventually descends into parodic CGI vomit; including a climatic duel between our anti-hero and a rival symbiote with all manner of Zack Snyder-esque crashing, punching, and explosions. It’s about as thrilling as watching the homeless population writhe in agony as tentacled globs swirl around their intestines while an Elon Musk analog twirls his imaginary mustache.

There’s a sense throughout Venom that Hardy is steamrolling his journeyman director into taking the standard comic book narrative into loopier territory. But the actor’s dedication in leaning into the material’s trash/cult curio potential is ultimately a moot point, seeing as this is still a major studio release taking place inside (or just outside) the MCU. As such, it cannot fully embrace the Sami Raimi Darkman vibes existing at the edges of a rather dull origins story. Instead, Fleischer settles more for Ghostrider/Daredevil vibes, with Hardy’s mumbly, spastic, tater tot-munching slapstick delivering in between dull swaths of plot exposition and deafening action sequences.







The Sisters Brothers

 

Cast: John C. Reilly, Joaquin Phoenix, Jake Gyllenhaal, Riz Ahmed

Director: Jacques Audiard

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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The longing for sensitivity inside the soul of lawless men has been at the center of writer/director Jacques Audiard’s filmography for years. Just look at the piano-playing delinquent in The Beat My Heart Skipped, the hardened prisoner looking for spiritual awakening in A Prophet, or even the soft-spoken Sri Lankan refugee turned badass in Dheepan. These are all men hiding in the shadows who still desire something close to happiness.

Audiard’s latest film, The Sister’s Brothers, is an odd one. A darkly comic western following the journey of titular brothers Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) as they track down a man responsible for creating a formula for easily detecting gold, the film nonetheless fits squarely into Audiard’s fascination with lonely men looking for a way to escape their loneliness. It also should be noted that Reilly bought the rights to the 2011 Patrick deWitt novel upon which the film is based, and is credited as executive producer. This means there’s a level to which his talents as a character actor— that mix of social awkwardness and sadness—is perfectly suited to the role of Eli; a man who simply wants to finish one last job and be done with the business of killing altogether. On the other hand, his brother Charlie relishes the opportunity to kill insofar as it offers him a big pay day and plenty of booze, which likewise fits Phoenix’s brand of loose-cannon acting.

The Sisters Brothers follows a parallel narrative track, switching between Eli and Charlie’s exploits with that of the mark they are following, Hermann Kermit Warm (Riz Ahmed). Once Warm teams up with John Morris (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man originally sent to capture him, the film moves into more introspective territory. As played by Ahmed with a soft gaze and sober intellect, there’s a homoerotic subtext to Warm and Morris’s relationship which also reads as a larger allegorical statement on the possibilities of an undiscovered country. Though there are violent interludes, shoot outs, and drunken shouting matches, The Sisters Brothers is an uncommonly cool-headed film. One might even call it gentle.

Still, this being an Audiard joint, there’s no shortage of nihilistic consequences for the actions of selfish men. In the film’s third act, things take a tragic turn as the two narrative tracks converge. Warm’s utopian idea of a society presaging socialism is a melancholic take on the eventual collapse of democracy, with the greed for gold ultimately trumping everything. All the while, Reilly and Phoenix play off each other wonderfully as polar opposites trapped in a geographical space which makes sensible life all but nonexistent. When a character asks Eli why he continues to put up with Charlie’s dim-witted recklessness, he simply stares off and mutters, “He’s my brother.” It’s a simple yet powerful sentiment which informs the film’s unexpectedly tender ending, which may be the most lyrical filmmaking of Audiard’s career. However, even this climax is tinged with despair because we know that for the Sisters brothers, it’s a feeling that ultimately won’t last.

Hold the Dark

 

Cast: Jeffrey Wright, Alexander Skarsgård, Riley Keough, James Badge Dale, Julian Black Antelope, Tantoo Cardinal, Beckham Crawford

Director: Jeremy Saulnier

Running time: 2 hours 5 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Jeffery Wright, the consummate character actor who often improves scenes merely by showing up, is given a rare central role in writer-director Jeremy Saulnier’s latest thriller, Hold the Dark. Wright has a knack for both outlandishness and subtlety; imbuing his characters with off-kilter tics, or in the case of his infamous role in Julian Schnabel’s Basquiat, a sense of tenderness. As Russell Core, a wolf tracker/author, Wright brings a quiet soulfulness to a character which on paper exists mostly as a cipher. It’s a pity then, that the film itself fails him, since Sauliner’s take on William Giraldi’s novel of the same name (adapted by friend and co-actor Macon Blair), is mostly a laughable dirge into the abyss. Brutal violence in the Alaskan wilderness has never felt this pointless since last year’s Wind River.

Sauliner’s gifts up until this point have been in maintaining a mood of intense dread punctuated by moments of shocking violence. Both Blue Ruin and Green Room showed how humans pushed to their breaking points (psychologically and physically) could be capable of heinous acts. These films used gore not to titillate the audience (ala the work of Quentin Tarantino), but rather, to reveal the messiness of how real violence often manifests itself. Truthfully, there are stretches during Hold the Dark; particularly a tense extended police shootout, where Sauliner achieves this sublime fusion, but such moments are fleeting. On the whole, the director’s penchant for obvious metaphors and blunt formalism makes Hold the Dark silly in its brooding self-seriousness. Once the thematic goal is laid bare (spoiler alert: wolves are just a metaphor for the savage evil of humanity!), Sauliner’s film falls apart under the weight of its own ridiculousness.

Without moments of levity, humanity, or even comprehensible behavior, it’s difficult to engender much empathy for the kind of soulless archetypes trotted out here. The initial narrative involves children going missing from a small Alaskan town. Wright’s echo-friendly tracker is brought in by Medora Slone (Riley Keough), to hunt the wolf which apparently killed her son. Medora’s husband, Vernon (Alexander Skarsgård), is fighting in the war in the Middle East, introduced by stoically gunning down a bunch of foreigners before brutally stabbing one of his own. Medora speaks in hushed whispers, wears a weird mask at one point, and stumbles around naked. Vernon, meanwhile, is sent back home after being injured and almost instantly goes on a sociopathic killing spree. Of course, the entire wolf tracking episode is a red herring, with the narrative shifting into a ham-fisted treatise on America’s bloodlust for violence.

Medora and Vernon are such blank slates that whenever the focus moves away from Core (which is more often than expected), Hold the Dark feels like bland miserablism for its own sake. As things near the predictably bleak and bloody conclusion, Sauliner mistakes his rather straightforward genre exercise for something more profound. Had he played into the material’s ludicrousness (complete with Inuit curses, slasher masks straight out of The Strangers, and arrow attacks), then Hold the Dark could have been a clever midnight movie riff. Instead, Sauliner wants to make big statements about humanity, which is too bad. A world-weary Jeffery Wright hunting down mystical wolves could have been much more meaningful.

Mandy

 

Cast: Nicolas Cage, Andrea Riseborough, Linus Roache, Ned Dennehy, Olwen Fouéré, Bill Duke, Richard Brake, Line Pillet

Director: Panos Cosmatos

Running time: 2 hours

by Jericho Cerrona

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If writer-director Panos Cosmatos’s previous feature, 2012’s Beyond the Black Rainbow, was an hallucinogenic pastiche of the films of David Cronenberg and John Carpenter’s Dark Star, then his latest plunge into 80’s Astro lamp psychedelia, Mandy, should have fanboys tripping big time. Though superficially a revenge thriller in which Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) must avenge the brutal murder of his lover, Mandy (Andrea Riseborough), the film is much more concerned with pop-cultural artiness than streamlined genre thrills. Though set somewhere in the California wilderness circa 1983, the film could just as easily take place within the pages of Heavy Metal magazine.

During the film’s opening stretch, Cosmatos allows us to spend time with Red and Mandy as they lounge around their quiet home. Red is a blue collar worker who cuts down trees, enjoys a good smoke, and indulges in Eric Estrada knock-knock jokes, while Mandy comes off like a former D & D fanatic lost in her horror/fantasy paperback novels. Cage and Riseborough have an easygoing chemistry which helps humanize characters who could have come off like accessories amidst Cosmatos’s over-determined visual style. Set to the synthy drone of late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score and filled with neon reds, pink/white hues, and protracted slow zooms, Mandy is retro wankery that somehow overcomes its influences.

Once cult leader Sand Jeremiah (Linus Roache), enters the picture, things take a turn toward the twisted. Mandy is kidnapped by the cult, forced to take a potent drug cocktail, and endure a druggy monologue about sexually enslaving women. During this sequence, Cosmatos overlaps imagery with a variety of cross dissolves; saturating the frame with pinkish hues at a delayed pace. The scene ends with Jeremiah revealing his flaccid member, to which Mandy howls in mocking disgust; emasculating the leader’s messiah complex. Here and elsewhere, the film is commenting on the absurdity of the male ego and the ludicrous lengths it will go to get what it wants. At the other end of the wounded masculinity spectrum is Red; a former alcoholic who witnesses the vicious murder of his partner and must inevitably go on a mission of vengeance.

Along with the death cult, there’s a ghoulish biker gang recalling a mixture of Hellraiser and Mad Max who have been warped by a hallucinatory strain of LSD. Of course, Red gathers a variety of weapons in order to embark on his killing spree, and one key scene has him meeting with an arms dealer (Bill Duke, chewing scenery), who fills him in on the fantastical exposition regarding the demonic roving bikers. From here, Mandy transforms into a ultra-violent riff on male loneliness; complete with a scene in which Cage, clad in his underwear and swinging a bottle of whiskey inside a bathroom, has an emotional breakdown. Though this moment may appear locked into the meme-worthy pantheon, Cage actually melds his live wire outrageousness with notes of primal sadness. As the film moves on, his performance becomes more mournful and heartbreaking. Sure, there are the obligatory “big” set-pieces; like a chainsaw duel which ends in a particularly satisfying geyser of blood, but the film becomes more emotionally resonant as we witness Red falling deeper into the abyss.

Mandy is a phantasmagoric cinematic experience; slow, hypnotic, violent, and melancholy. Cosmatos’s excessive formalism will not be to everyone’s tastes, and there’s a sense in which some of the experimental notes of Beyond the Black Rainbow have been excised for a more straightforward revenge narrative here. Still, Cage holds the entire thing together as a man purging the hate in his heart only to lose his soul completely. Ultimately, we are locked into his blood-soaked face and white bulging eyes as he stares off into oblivion. Resurrected in retribution. Lost in grief.




Damsel

 

Cast: Robert Pattinson, Mia Wasikowska, David Zellner, Nathan Zellner, Gabe Casdorph, Joseph Billingiere, Robert Forster

Director: Nathan Zellner, David Zellner

Running time: 1 hour 53 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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David and Nathan Zellner have long been tweaking expectations; from the darkly comedic riff on childhood mental illness that was Kid Thing to the obsessive fairy tale of Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter. Often compared to the Coen Brothers (not just in terms of the familial pairing), the Zellners have quietly built a name for themselves on the indie circuit by couching melancholy behind deadpan quirk. Their latest film, Damsel, also arrives with a meta take on a specific genre; in this case, an attempt at deconstructing the Western by showing the foolishness of the male ego by switching up narrative mechanisms at the half-way point. The results are admirable, if contrived; playing like a protracted sketch in which the Zellners have nowhere particularly compelling to take their atypical premise.

Robert Pattinson stars as Samuel Alabaster, a dim-witted wanderer who strides into a small town with a miniature pony named Butterscotch in tow. He’s looking for a man of the cloth to officiate his wedding to his true love, Penelope (Mia Wasikowska), whom we glimpse only briefly in flashback during a rather spirited dance sequence. The pastor in question, a vagrant named Henry (David Zellner) is a drunken mess, lying prostrate near the ocean when Samuel approaches him with an offer he can’t refuse. Thus, the two men set off on a journey through the wilderness to find Penelope, whom we later discover has been taken captive by brothers Anton (Gabe Casdorph) and Rufus Cornell (Nathan Zellner), or so Samuel claims. As played by Pattinson with a deluded kind of earnestness, Samuel is the type of dandy who makes big romantic proclamations, but whose grip on reality emerges as teetering on the edge of mania. In this way, the Zellners cleverly unmask the inanity of male pride and the Western’s themes of honor and dignity.

Damsel makes an abrupt tonal shift around the half-way mark once Wasikowska’s fiercely independent fiancé gets involved, leading to a sequence of tragicomic violence which moves the film into more uncertain territory. However, for all of Penelope’s reserve and quasi-feminist speeches, her character is ultimately a hollow cipher on hand to represent an ideology. Though there’s a welcome revisionist streak as the film shifts to the female perspective, the Zellners don’t know what to do narratively since they haven’t fleshed out the character of Penelope beyond broad brush strokes.

Despite gorgeous widescreen cinematography, an evocative score, and game performances, Damsel feels underdeveloped to the point of superfluousness. The film points out the inherent sexism and racism of the old West (and many classic Western films, generally), but then botches the second half twist by not fully investing in the interior life of Wasikowska’s one-note crusading heroine. Sure, she’s a “damsel” who doesn’t need saving, but does she want, and more importantly, who is she? The film, much like real life, doesn’t seem to care.







The Predator

 

Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Trevante Rhodes, Jacob Tremblay, Keegan-Michael Key, Olivia Munn, Sterling K. Brown, Thomas Jane, Alfie Allen, Augusto Aguilera, Yvonne Strahovski, Jake Busey

Director: Shane Black

Running time: 1 hour 41 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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Shane Black has spent his entire career trafficking in wisecracking machismo; from writing the screenplays for 1980s action movies like Lethal Weapon to ironic 1990s deconstructions of the genre such as Last Action Hero. His directing work includes 2005’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang and 2016’s The Nice Guys, two films which traded on audiences having a working familiarity of his career in Hollywood. His connection to the Predator franchise is also more than simply casual; having starred in a bit role as radio operator Rick Hawkins in the original 1987 film. Known for razor sharp dialogue, elaborate crime plots, and male camaraderie, Black’s latest directorial effort sees him tapping into some of that same cinematic mojo. For all its over the top gore and knockabout comedy, The Predator is mostly about male posturing under the guise of surviving planetary alien invasion.

The Predator has a plot (perhaps too much plot), but like most films of this type, the plot doesn’t matter. Things begins in earnest when a Predator space vessel plummets to earth and crash lands deep in a Mexican forest. Enter black-ops American sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook, channeling Colin Farrell by way of Charlie Hunnam), who discovers the downed ship and naturally steals some of the scattered alien tech. For some reason, he ends up shipping the stolen equipment to his estranged ex-wife Emily (Yvonne Strahovski) and autistic son, Rory (Jacob Tremblay), and since the kid is “on the spectrum”, he quickly decodes the alien language. If this setup sounds ludicrous, Black doubles down on the inherent goofiness of his central conceit by having Quinn deemed mentally unstable and placed inside a van en route to a high-security facility. On board, there’s a predictably rag tag group of misfits, including Tourette vet Baxley (Thomas Jane), Nebraska (Trevante Rhodes), an officer with suicidal impulses, and Keegan-Michael Key as the comic relief sidekick Coyle, among others. In classic Shane Black fashion, these are vulgar-mouthed delinquents who are all stereotypes right out of 80s action movie pantheon. Whether or not this ironic bid for nostalgia to a simpler time where “men could be men” is to one’s liking is debatable, but there’s no denying Black’s absurdist thrill in harkening back.

Of course, there’s also a cocky research agent, Will Traeger (Sterling K. Brown), who basically enters and exits scenes with a resume of quippy one-liners, and a civilian scientist, Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn), eventually joining up with Quinn’s escaped group of self-described “loonies”. Black lets many scenes play out with ping-pong dialogue and self-referential bits of humor which more or less works in the hands of such a game cast. Occasionally, he injects doses of graphic violence and standard action beats into the narrative whenever the Predator shows up, accompanied by Henry Jackman’s throwback score, which liberally borrows themes from the original film.

At a certain point, once a larger Predator is introduced, things completely loose all sense of narrative coherency. At times, the film seems edited to within an inch of its life; with characters disappearing and reappearing at will without so much as a single thought to geography or time constraints. However, Black’s propensity for midnight movie thrills; complete with inventive kills, loopy pratfalls, and rambling comedic tangents, keeps The Predator from trailing off into tedium. There’s something comforting about a movie which gives you that thing sorely lacking in big action projects these days; a sense of ludicrous showmanship.

The Predator isn’t the least bit suspenseful or terrifying, but Black’s aims here seem to be more inward-looking. There’s a knowing sense of pessimism, even with the inclusion of some half-baked emotional beats involving Quinn and his autistic son, that permeates the need for these damaged soldiers to strike out against not only evil alien invaders, but also their own government. This is perhaps the film’s most crucial element, since Sterling K. Brown’s vainglorious agent essentially becomes the de facto villain. Therefore, behind the movie’s nonsensical framework about space aliens ravaging our planet, there’s an anarchic attitude about the role of masculinity just waiting to be disemboweled, scattered limb from limb, and strewn throughout the jungle.

Searching

 

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Roy Abrahmsohn, Gabriel D. Angell

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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With the advent of social media, technology has given us a way to create mini narratives; fashioning our lives as a series of images, video files, and text-based “updates”. Therefore, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to utilize this trend for cinematic purposes, seeing as how narrative information can easily be dispensed through computer-based montages. Aneesh Chaganty's Searching begins with this in mind; stringing together a variety of pictures, videos, and other media depicting the childhood years of Margot (Michelle La). This provides a decade-long prologue following Margot as she grows up while dealing with her mother, Pam (Sara Sohn), who is diagnosed with and eventually passes away from cancer. Even though this introduction is effective in distilling thematic information, it’s also presented like a cloying Hallmark commercial; complete with twinkly piano music accompanying mawkish home video footage. Whether one sheds a tear or experiences a gag reflex is subjective, but it’s clear Searching wants audiences to feel something.

Or does it? Aesthetically, Chaganty’s film is similar to other tech-based experiments like the Unfriended series where the entire story takes place on a computer screen, but rather than lean into the horrors of what may be lurking on the Internet, Searching draws its dramatic thrust from B-grade thrillers and old fashioned murder mysteries. Margot's father, David (John Cho), is set up as a seemingly caring dad who misjudges his relationship with his daughter. Once she goes missing after attending a study group, David launches into full on sleuth mode like an iChat Sherlock Holmes; attempting to track down his daughter through Gmail, Facebook, Tumblr, and other chat sites.

Initially, Searching seems to be commenting on how technology allows us to hide our pain behind digital avatars, but honestly, the film is mostly a rousing digital age procedural. As David teams up with tough-minded Detective Vick (Debra Messing), the film’s first two acts serve as a virtual investigation where a distraught father follows a series of cyberspace clues. Was Margot some kind of criminal? Was she kidnapped and her identity stolen? Can David trust his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) who seems to be harboring a dark secret? Why is Messing’s detective so psychologically fragile? How many typing mistakes, spelling errors, and deleted messages will David be guilty of?

Searching takes some wild turns in the third act as red herrings pile up like glitchy load screens. Less time is dedicated to David’s inner turmoil and more to twisting genre tropes and gotcha! surprises. While this shift into mystery/thriller cheesiness may strike some viewers as disingenuous, it’s actually the most gleefully entertaining aspect of the film. If the previous two acts had operated more in this heightened thriller mode, then the deliriously absurd climax may have landed more forcefully.

As it stands, all of the late rug-pulling maintains a tonal lunacy sadly missing from the film’s more sentimental setup. All the while, John Cho registers looks of concern, shock, fear, disgust, and panic as he furiously toggles menus and screens within screens. It’s the kind of thing which used to be judged as “phone acting”, a notoriously difficult task of reacting and responding to nothing and no one. But perhaps Cho wasn’t told what type of film he was starring in; a film which requires melodramatic theatrics, not authentic father-daughter bonding, in order to sell its delightfully cornball finish.





Tully

 

Cast: Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis, Mark Duplass, Ron Livingston, Elaine Tan, Lia Frankland, Asher Miles Fallica

Director: Jason Reitman

Running time: 1 hour 35 minutes

by Jericho Cerrona

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As a treatise on the barbarity of motherhood, Jason Reitman's Tully might be a spiritual cousin to Darren Aronofsky's polarizing Mother! Of course, Reitman's style is less bombastic and more middlebrow, and yes, no babies are devoured (spoilers!) in this tragicomedy about a depressed mum, but the connections are there. 

Marlo (Charlize Theron) is very pregnant during the opening scenes of Tully, and Reitman makes sure her enlarged belly is prominently featured in closeup. She's also extremely devoted to her son, Jonah (Asher Miles Fallica), who may be on the spectrum. Jonah's teachers constantly refer to the kid as "quirky", because, well, that's something consistently lobbied at screenwriter Diablo Cody (teaming up with Reitman again here for the third time after Juno and Young Adult).

To her credit, Cody has fashioned a more complex protagonist than expected, and unsurprisingly, Theron gives a fearlessly committed performance. The problem is that aside from Marlo, there are no other characters which remotely feel like human beings. Marlo's husband, Drew (Ron Livingston) is the prototypical overworked sad dad who spends his down time playing video games. Her wealthy brother, Craig (Mark Duplass), and sister-in-law, Elyse (Elaine Tan), are caricatures of upper class ignorance. And then there's the titular Tully (Mackenzie Davis), a night nanny brought in to balance out Marlo's hectic lifestyle who remains strangely upbeat at all times. Something, as they say, seems to be amiss here.

Tully tries very hard to comment on postpartum depression and the ways in which women often lose their identity when they become mothers, but Reitman isn't a subtle enough filmmaker to pull this kind of thing off. Cody's dialogue, meanwhile, is less arch than in something like Juno, but just as contrived. As magical-realist flourishes begin cropping up, along with annoying motherhood montages, Tully begins showing its cards as a gimmicky narrative en route to the predictable character epiphany. Had the film trusted its characters (fleshing out the supporting players would have helped) and in turn, the audience, then Reitman may have been able to truly say something about the link between mental illness and child-bearing. The fact that Marlo probably shouldn't have had children in the first place is broached, but ceremoniously brushed off. The film's happy ending feels false. Marlo's maternal problems are real, but in the end, Tully treats them as little more than wish-fulfillment from an unreliable narrator. If Marlo was indeed a English Literature graduate as she claims, then she should have written herself a better script.