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Review: Crimson Peak

Crimson Peak is Guillermo del Toro’s fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.

3.5

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Crimson Peak
Photo: Universal Pictures

Crimson Peak may be the quintessential Guillermo del Toro film, as it compresses his fetishistic attention to detail into a single looming set where creaking floorboards, scores of dying moths, and the frequent intrusions of mutilated ghosts are just pieces in the giant dollhouse where the director merrily plays. The combination of gothic ghost story and harlequin romance doesn’t break new ground for either genre, but the intensity of Brandt Gordon’s art direction and Kate Hawley’s costume design reinforce the innate connection that period romance and horror share in how these genres so purely express their most profound ideas through ornate style.

Amusingly, the action of the film’s first act, the gamesmanship of high society’s courtship rituals playing out in well-lit parlors, is no less tense than the story’s eventual retreat into the dark confines of Allerdale Hall. The most dominant sound effects in these early scenes are the gasps and mutterings of New York’s nouveau riche as English nobleman Sir Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) ignores the pampered bachelorettes trotted out before him. Instead, he homes in on the bookish Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska), an aspiring horror author and the only child of a self-made magnate (Jim Beaver) from whom he seeks financing for mining equipment. Del Toro films a scene of Thomas and Edith waltzing for a gathered crowd of elites, all while trying to keep the flame from the candle they grip in their hands from going out, as if it were a circus stunt, the couple’s willingness to dance in front of a wall of judgment akin to performing acrobatics without a net.

Such flourishes are almost subtle despite their intricate blocking and rich color palettes, but when Crimson Peak finally arrives at the Sharpe family home in remote Cumberland, del Toro indulges his most freewheeling whims. Allerdale Hall itself appears to have been hand-carved out of blatant symbols: the dulled seafoam-green wall paint that points to its overgrown ruin; the dank corridors lined by ominously spiked stone pillars and arches; and the gnarled architecture, with rooms that intersect so erratically with other chambers that they become entangled with one another. Rot has claimed the roof, letting dead leaves and, eventually, snow coat the long-faded grandeur of the foyer. Meanwhile, the blood-red clay that Thomas mines from the property seeps up through the floorboards, occasionally giving the house the impression of bleeding from ripped-open sutures.

So precisely defined is every aspect of Allerdale Hall’s physical decay that even the people who dwell within it feel more like conduits for the manse’s soul than independent agents. If Wasikowska’s surprisingly fortitudinous naïf is meant to recall Jane Eyre, Hiddleston’s version of Rochester comes not from Charlotte Brontë’s classic tome, but the revisionist version found in Wide Sargasso Sea, a feckless brute who maintains a veneer of respectability just long enough to nab a wife he can exploit to boost his own faded status. Hiddleston’s best performances always hint at a bit of sleaze beneath a show of welcoming charm, and the hunger that fills Thomas’s eyes whenever talk of money arises lays bare the sham of his romance from the start.

Jessica Chastain outdoes him, however, as Thomas’s even more mysterious older sister, Lucille, her face frozen in resentment and given to mirthless, thin-lipped smiles only in moments of extremely rare generosity. Perpetually clutching a set of ornate keys in her hands, Lucille is at once a judging matron, jealous sibling, and pitiless overseer. If Thomas embodies the house’s self-loathing and revulsion, Lucille is its unrepentant pride—neither the hole in the ceiling nor the sinking floor, but the decorated walls and lavish furnishings that stand defiant to the reality of their obsolescence.

Compared to the siblings, Edith lacks a memorable hook, and Wasikowska doesn’t get the chance to pore over her character the way that Hiddleston and Chastain do theirs. Nonetheless, most del Toro films feature a proxy for the director, and Edith’s ghost-seeing bookworm fits the bill here. As in the director’s other films, the supernatural is both real and imagined, clearly having a direct impact on a character’s surroundings while also pitched with sufficient ambiguity that some encounters suggest projections from the mind. Del Toro typically plays that line for maximum fairy-tale effect, but Edith’s tendency to continue to believe in the fundamental romance between herself and Thomas puts her in as much danger as her openness to the paranormal prepares her for the eventual confrontation with the truth of her new family.

Del Toro’s decision to explicitly underline the weaknesses of his proxy in Crimson Peak belatedly exposes prior stand-ins as equally shortsighted, and in the process the director clarifies a crucial thematic through line of his filmography. In retrospect, his fantasies are the opposite of escapes from harsh reality: It’s the real world, with its war and discrimination, that intrudes on the imagination, which can conjure up impressively detailed creatures and settings, but often struggles to map the complexities of emotion and history. Del Toro’s films tend toward the mythological, which is to say they’re timeless, rooted in a deep, era-nonspecific past. When social and historical context finally breach his microcosm, they expose the rifts of immaturity and sadness of a child who knows it’s time to grow up, but cannot face adulthood.

In that sense, del Toro may have less in common with the masters of horror than he does Wes Anderson, who similarly papers over his characters’ melancholy and displacement from the present with elaborate bricolage and immersion in esoterica. Crimson Peak, then, may be the director’s Life Aquatic, his fussiest, most compartmentalized construction, and therefore the one filled with the most powerful sense of repression and delusion.

Or perhaps, more accurately, it’s his Grand Budapest Hotel, what with its deranged aristocracy fighting a losing battle against time by targeting the new stewards of capitalism, leaching from them in a futile attempt to be restored to the old pomp and wealth. In Anderson’s film, a fading way of life tries to remain relevant by ignoring the atrocities begat of its willful obliviousness. In del Toro’s more explicitly generic terms, however, it’s the old guard that directly commits those atrocities to stem the tide of progress, a strategy so all-consuming that only at the point of self-destruction can one character realize what a waste it was to cling to so rotten a home in the first place.

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver, Burn Gorman, Leslie Hope, Doug Jones, Jonathan Hyde, Bruce Gray, Emily Coutts Director: Guillermo del Toro Screenwriter: Guillermo del Toro, Matthew Robbins Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 119 min Rating: R Year: 2015 Buy: Video

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Review: A Thousand Cuts Sounds the Alarm on Rodrigo Duterte’s Tyranny

The film uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media.

3

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A Thousand Cuts
Photo: Frontline

Centered on a heroic narrative that’s almost drowned out by the bleakness of its surrounding material, Ramona S. Diaz’s A Thousand Cuts uses endangered press freedom in the Philippines to illustrate the threat posed to liberal democracy by weaponized social media. Fortunately, Diaz resists the urge felt by many artists to see all geopolitical matters through the lens of America’s decaying polity. Still, it’s impossible not to feel the shadow of Donald Trump in the documentary when Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte tells crusading journalist Maria Ressa that her lonely, besieged, and truth-telling outlet is “fake news.” What works for one would-be autocrat apparently works for another.

Ressa is the executive editor of Rappler, a buzzy Philippines news site fighting disinformation at the source by optimizing itself for maximum social media dissemination. A sprite of cheery efficiency who seems happiest when presenting people with horrific facts, Ressa delivers a dire, if unsurprising, message when she says that “lies laced with anger and hate spread fastest” on social media. She adds that her country is particularly fertile ground for such viral firestorms, given that the average Filipino spends approximately 10 hours a day online.

While A Thousand Cuts appears more engaged in the flesh-and-blood conflicts of cutthroat Filipino politics, it highlights one of Ressa’s more impactful data dives: of a self-amplifying network of 26 fake accounts effectively spreading false Duterte propaganda to over three million people. The result of such dissemination ranges from fast-spreading memes (calling Rappler’s many female reporters “presstitutes”) to mobs (angry Duterte fans live-streaming from Rappler’s lobby while supportive posts call for the journalists to be raped, murdered, and beheaded). As is the case with strongmen the world over, the animus behind all this virtual bile is the reporting of inconvenient truths. All throughout the film, which commences in 2018 and follows the government’s anti-Rappler campaign through a court decision in June 2020, Ressa and her reporters put out punchy stories about potential corruption in Duterte’s family and how his anti-drug vigilante campaign led to thousands of killings in shadowy circumstances.

A Thousand Cuts presents this as a lopsided battle. Rappler’s upright, mostly young colleagues try to discern the real story behind a smokescreen of spin. Meanwhile, Duterte mesmerizes crowds with his surreally rambling speeches, careening from claims that a bullet is the best way to stop drug abuse to talking about the size of his penis. At the same time, we see his surrogates barnstorming around the country like fascist carnival barkers whipping up crowds. The president’s head of police, Bato Dela Rosa, is a bald and clowning bruiser who mixes bloodthirsty declarations of his eagerness to kill for his boss with off-key ballads. While Rosa goes for WWE appeal, girl-group performer and pro-Duterte mean girl Mucho Uson seems more like what would happen if a Pussycat Doll were employed by Steve Bannon.

The film is most darkly enthralling when it’s showing this combat (albeit a mostly physically distanced one) between a cartoonish villain like Duterte and underdogs like Ressa. In addition to bringing a frisson of interpersonal drama to the narrative, the almost existential conflict shows in stark terms just how much the country has to lose. The conflict over press freedom ranges from legal harassment to a barrage of violent threats. Some of the film’s most wrenching moments are the testimonials from Rappler’s inspiring writers, who are as dedicated as Ressa but not as seemingly impervious to the atmosphere of constant menace created by the sense of impunity implied by Duterte’s bullying swagger. “I’m terrified every day,” says Patricia Evangelista, wiry with tension and fear. “Maria doesn’t scare easily. I do.”

A Thousand Cuts loses some steam when it departs the hot conflict of the Philippines for the cooler environs of Manhattan. There, on a couple occasions that we see later in the film, Ressa speaks at or is honored by a number of gala first-world events, from the Atlantic Festival to a shindig with Amal and George Clooney. While these moments are likely there to show Ressa in more relaxed settings, they seem far less necessary than what’s happening back in the Philippines. Ressa’s happy-warrior personality shines so brightly in this film that watching her fight the good fight is all the humanizing she requires. “We are meant to be a cautionary tale,” Ressa says about her battle for press freedom and the democratic rule of law in an environment increasingly choked off by vitriol and propaganda. “We are meant to make you afraid.” Sounding an alarm meant to be heard around the wired world, her film does just that.

Director: Ramona S. Diaz Distributor: PBS Running Time: 110 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: I Used to Go Here Mines Cringe Comedy from Collegiate Nostalgia

The film is almost sadistically driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

2

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I Used to Go Here
Photo: Gravitas Ventures

Following the unceremonious cancellation of the book tour for her recently released debut novel, 35-year-old Kate (Gillian Jacobs) is suddenly afflicted with the existential angst that can result from taking stock of one’s life. Kris Rey’s lightly comedic I Used to Go Here proceeds to chart the aftermath of Kate’s personal and professional disappointments after she’s pulled in various directions by her desperate struggle for acceptance. And in doing so, the film initially taps into the insecurities that plague many a professional writer. But once Kate starts to cope with her subpar book sales by taking her old professor, David (Jemaine Clement), up on his offer for her to speak at her alma mater, I Used to Go Here begins to indulge all manner of collegiate nostalgia, trafficking in the clichés of so many works concerned with adults who struggle to recapture the hopefulness of their youth.

For her part, Jacobs is rather convincing at portraying the exhausting mental gymnastics that some artists do in order to appear confident and successful in public, while licking their wounds in private. Rey, however, grows increasingly disinterested in probing Kate’s state of emotional instability in any meaningful way, instead leaning into the sheer awkwardness of situations wherein Kate attempts to relive her glory days. Indeed, there’s an almost discomfiting sadism to the manner in which Rey has Kate grapple with one embarrassment after another as the young woman tries to regain some semblance of self-respect.

From the baby shower where Kate is forced to take a picture with three pregnant friends and hold up a book as her proxy child, to the uncomfortable revelation that David’s wife, Alexis (Kristina Valada-Viars), doesn’t like Kate’s writing, I Used to Go Here relentlessly stacks the deck against Kate. In fact, her failings are laid on so thick that it becomes impossible to imagine how she ever managed to get a legitimate book deal in the first place. By the time she’s had her third blow-out with her bed-and-breakfast host (Cindy Gold), her ex-fiancé stops returning her calls, and her much awaited New York Times book review is revealed to be emphatically negative, it’s clear that the film primarily sees Kate as a mere avatar for every struggling artist, leading her through broadly comic stations of the writer’s cross as her dreams of fame and success crumble on the very same campus on which they were birthed.

This parade of humiliating experiences is given a brief respite as Kate’s bonds with Hugo (Josh Wiggins), a college student who admires her work and with whom she shares a real, albeit short-lived, connection. It’s the lone relationship in the film that feels truly authentic, and it’s when Kate is with Hugo that we begin to get a sense of who she is and what informed her personal life before her professional one fell apart. But soon Kate is being pitted against David’s new star pupil, April (Hannah Marks), who is, of course, revealed to be Hugo’s girlfriend. It’s a particularly trite way of highlighting the stark contrasts between who Kate was in her youth and who she’s become in the decade-plus since, and it’s par for the course in a film driven to turn a woman’s trip down memory lane into fodder for cringe humor.

Cast: Gillian Jacobs, Jemaine Clement, Kate Micucci, Hannah Marks, Jorma Taccone, Zoe Chao, Josh Wiggins, Forrest Goodluck, Jennifer Joan Taylor, Rammel Chan Director: Kris Rey Screenwriter: Kris Rey Distributor: Gravitas Ventures Running Time: 87 min Rating: NR Year: 2020

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Review: Like Its Characters, She Dies Tomorrow Stays in a Holding Pattern

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Amy Seimetz revels in vagueness.

2.5

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She Dies Tomorrow
Photo: Neon

For a while, Amy Seimetz’s She Dies Tomorrow seems like a chamber play about a single woman in a tailspin. Amy (Kate Lyn Sheil) wanders her recently purchased, relatively empty house, drinking wine, playing opera on vinyl on repeat, and shopping for leather jackets online. Sheil, one of the rawest actors working in American cinema, informs these actions with wrenching agony, communicating the lost-ness, the emptiness of profound depression, which Seimetz complements with surrealist formalism. Lurid colors bleed into the film’s frames, suggesting that Amy is potentially hallucinating, and there are shards of barely contextualized incidents that suggest violent flashbacks or memories. And the subtlest touches are the most haunting, such as the casual emphasis that Seimetz places on Amy’s unpacked boxes, physicalizing a life in perpetual incompletion.

Seimetz and Sheil, who collaborated on the filmmaker’s feature-length debut, Sun Don’t Shine, and the first season of The Girlfriend Experience, are intensely intuitive artists, and Seimetz, an extraordinary actor in her own right, is almost preternaturally in tune with Sheil. The first act of She Dies Tomorrow is a cinematic mood ring in which Seimetz invites Sheil to explore the emotional spectrums of alienation. This stretch of the film is poignant and almost intangibly menacing, redolent of the final 30 minutes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive, which also bridged mental illness with surrealist fantasy and horror-film tropes.

Despite its undeserved reputation as an inscrutable riddle to be solved, Mulholland Drive ended on a note of devastating, cathartic clarity. In She Dies Tomorrow, however, Seimetz pointedly doesn’t give the audience closure, which is meant to communicate the endless work of mental health as well as the lingering aura of doom that seems to be a permanent part of modern life. These are laudable ambitions in theory, but as it expands on its high-concept premise, the film comes to feel more and more, well, theoretical, trapped as an idea in its author’s mind, rather than existing as a fully living and breathing work.

Amy is suffering from more than depression. She’s convinced that she’s going to die, which her friend, Jane (Jane Adams), attributes to Amy’s falling off the wagon. But this fatalistic sensation is revealed to be contagious, as Jane councils Amy and then returns to her own home to find that she also feels with utter conviction that her hours are numbered. Seimetz then springs a startling and resonant surprise: Jane, a totem of stability to Amy, visits the house of her brother, Jason (Chris Messina), and his wife, Susan (Katie Aselton), where she’s seen as an alternately annoying and pitiable kook. Rarely has a filmmaker captured so delicately how we play different roles in different people’s lives, our identities shifting with an ease that’s scary when one gives it a moment of thought. The ease of this self-erasure, or self-modification, suggests instability, for which the film’s communicable death fear is in part a metaphor.

Eventually, though, She Dies Tomorrow goes into a holding pattern. We’re trapped with a half dozen people as they writhe in fear, proclaiming endlessly the approaching expiration of their lives. Seimetz doesn’t offer conventional horror thrills, but she stints on existential ruminations too. After Brian (Tunde Adebimpe), a friend of Jason and Susan, is driven by a death fear to commit a startling act, his girlfriend, Tilly (Jennifer Kim), says to him that she’s been waiting for Brian’s ailing father to die so she could break up with him after a certain waiting period with a clear conscience. And because this confession is delivered in offhanded and robotic fashion, you may wonder why Tilly wants to leave Brian.

We learn nothing else about their relationship, and so this confession feels like a conceit—an acknowledgment of the hypocrisies and evasions of grief—without the detail and immediacy of drama. Such scenes, commandingly acted and possessed of unrealized potential, are a disappointment after the film’s visceral first act. Later on in She Dies Tomorrow, there’s a moment with Jane and several other women laying by a poolside that has incredible visual power—bridging zoning out in the sun with complacent disenchantment with death with the power of taking control of female identity—but it’s similarly left hanging.

Perhaps as a result of her attempting to avoid all matter of clichés, not just of genre, Seimetz revels in vagueness. The notion of a communicable fear of death leads the characters to talk, minimally, of seizing the day, which is a cliché in itself. Seimetz is principally concerned with mood, with stylized dread that’s created by lingering on everyday objects and the use of slow motion and frenzied color schemes. Jane is a struggling artist who takes pictures of protozoa-like things blown up by a microscope, and Seimetz lingers on these to suggest that an explanation for life’s mysteries, or at least those of She Dies Tomorrow, are nearly within sight.

The apocalyptic atmosphere that Seimetz conjures here, especially among the privileged characters, is reminiscent of Karyn Kasuma’s The Invitation. That film’s ending was also disappointingly ordinary, but Kasuma gave her protagonists more room to breathe, revealing in their desperation, bitterness, and suffocating superficiality. In She Dies Tomorrow, Seimetz only gets that close to Amy and Jane, before splintering her film into off into missed opportunities. And given the film’s ambitions, that sense of squandering may be intentional.

Cast: Kate Lyn Sheil, Jane Adams, Chris Messina, Kentucker Audley, Jennifer Kim, Katie Aselton, Tunde Adebimpe, Josh Lucas, Michelle Rodriguez, Adam Wingard, Madison Calderon, Director: Amy Seimetz Screenwriter: Amy Seimetz Distributor: Neon Running Time: 84 min Rating: R Year: 2020

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Review: Jessica Swale’s Summerland Revels in Recycling Tales As Old As Time

Throughout, the film’s characters exhibit little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connections.

1.5

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Summerland
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Jessica Swale’s Summerland does a maddening double Dutch between cliché-laden genre modes. It is, by turns, a melancholic reverie on England’s home-front struggles during World War II and the looming end of an empire, a melodrama about a child teaching a crotchety spinster how to love, and a remembrance of a lesbian love affair. Each of these kinds of stories are typically prone to treacly sentiment, and when thrown together here, the end result is a film whose characters only seem to exist as vessels of pathos, exhibiting little life outside of their moments of tragedy and symbolic connection.

We first meet Alice (Penelope Wilton), a reclusive author and scholar, in her dotage, bristling at unwanted visitors to her seaside cottage in Kent. The film then flashes back to the war, with a younger Alice (Gemma Arterton) writing in the same home. Though tormented by local youths and resented by townsfolk for her antisocial behavior, Alice is perfectly content with solitude, until she learns that she’s been placed in charge of Frank (Lucas Bond), a boy evacuated from London as the Blitz rages on. Alice is, of course, outraged, and struggles to fob the child off onto anyone else in the United Kingdom, insisting that she must live under self-imposed isolation in order to focus on her research into pagan myths.

From the moment Frank arrives on her doorstep, there’s never any doubt that Alice will warm up to the child, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t obsess over her emotional thawing. But the boy’s presence does reawaken Alice’s suppressed memories of a romance she once shared with a young writer, Vera (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), during their university days. Their relationship suffered from their shared fear of discovery, and as it flits between past and present, Summerland never takes the time to build its characters, only providing simplistic glimpses of Alice’s past that are restricted to such overplayed images as the accidental brushing of hands and tear-stricken admissions of the impossibility of her being with Vera.

The revelation of Alice’s romantic life is the first of a series of twists that drive the remainder of the story, frequently at the expense of giving the actors room to breathe. Swale comes from the world of theater, and it shows in her functional compositions, which often frame the characters against the English countryside, typically in long shot and static medium-close-ups of them stagily expounding upon their feelings, almost as if they were playing to the cheap seats. And the film’s dialogue is perennially on the nose, as when Alice abruptly goes on a rant about religion and its suppressiveness that’s so obvious that even young, naïve Frank appears to understand that she’s really talking about her sexuality. And as each new dramatic upheaval shoves the slightest hints of subtle character growth out of the frame, the actors are reduced to repeatedly shuffling through the same gestures of shock and grief.

By constantly darting between so many overlapping forms of misery and longing, Summerland never gives its characters any interiority, making them purely reactive agents to the hell to which Swale subjects them. Though the film, surprisingly, concludes on a hopeful note, it indulges every dour cliché along the way, which, when paired with Swale’s drab direction, effectively saps the energy out of its many demonstrative moments of sorrow.

Cast: Gemma Arterton, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Penelope Wilton, Tom Courtenay, Lucas Bond Director: Jessica Swale Screenwriter: Jessica Swale Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 100 min Rating: PG Year: 2020

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Review: The Fight Is a Humanizing Look at the ACLU’s Fight for Civil Rights

The film justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

2.5

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The Fight

Wearing its allegiances on its sleeve, Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, and Elyse Steinberg’s snappy The Fight often succeeds at making the travails of civil rights lawyers in the Trump era visually and emotionally engaging. It follows five lawyers at the American Civil Liberties Union as they shuttle between New York, Washington D.C., and the Southwest, spearheading efforts to counter numerous assaults on the rights of immigrants, women, and transgender people. The film might be described with equal accuracy as a humanizing look behind the headlines or as a particularly slick ACLU fundraising video.

After evoking American liberals’ most concentrated moment of collective trauma by playing audio from Trump’s inauguration over the production company logos, the film jumps into a prologue showing ACLU attorney Lee Gelernt obtaining a stay on Donald Trump’s “Muslim ban.” After this (later overturned) legal win, Gelernt becomes the lead on the ACLU’s lawsuits over child separation at the U.S.-Mexico border, while colleagues Brigitte Amiri, Dale Ho, and the team of Lee Block and Chase Strangio work on abortion rights for detained migrants, the notorious “citizenship question” proposed for the 2020 census, and trans rights in the military.

Lawyering and court proceedings become fast-paced and heroic in the filmmakers’ depiction of the crusading attorneys. Film crews follow them as they file briefs, struggle to balance family and work life, cope with surprising rulings, and—in a moment of unrehearsed farce—do battle with Microsoft Word’s imperfect dictation feature. Some behind-the-scenes moments have a rehearsed, reality-TV quality to them, like Block and Strangio’s stilted discussion of why Block should take the lead on the trans rights case, even though Strangio is the only trans lawyer at the organization—a decision that had clearly already been made before the cameras started rolling. On the whole, however, the documentary achieves the narrative flow it strives for, presenting its somewhat nerdy heroes rising to face the left’s most infamous bêtes noirs—like when Amiri presents a case before a pre-Supreme Court Brett Kavanaugh.

A limitation on the film’s project is that the sexiest part of a civil rights attorney’s job—delivering soaring speeches about right and wrong to impassive figures dressed in the black robes of authority—isn’t accessible to cameras. Federal courts allow audio but not video recording, so for the latter the filmmakers substitute minimally animated illustrations, inspired by courtroom sketches but rendered in much more stylized fashion—expressively shaded and, for some reason, dominated by autumnal hues.

The animated sequences emblematize the film’s main fault: how it emphasizes easy visual appeal at the expense of a more interrogative approach. The title sequence is a fast-paced montage of news footage sliding in and out of shifting panels that subdivide the screen. It’s a motif that’s repeated throughout the film, and resembles the opening credits of Parks and Recreation, as if consciously channeling the Obama-era optimism of liberal millennials’ beloved sitcom. Following a theme, then, the first third of The Fight also introduces us to the ACLU’s New York offices as an energetic, offbeat space: Among the generally youthful staff, the middle-aged and out-of-the-loop Gelernt, his iPhone perpetually on the brink of battery death, comes off here as a more competent version of Parks and Rec’s Jerry Gergich.

Despite how often the film tries to be consumable at the expense of being thorough, at The Fight’s best moments, it both humanizes figures who only appear in the news stories as one-dimensional side notes and provides deeper context for viral footage that has defined the Trump era, like that of migrant children being reunited with their parents. And while the whole has been engineered to not overtax viewers with details of legal labor, it also contains illuminating tidbits of courtroom strategy—like when Block and Strangio page through candidates for the perfect plaintiff to represent in a class-action suit, or when Ho describes the oblique angle at which one must approach arguments around government officials’ racial bias. There’s a more complex documentary on the legal front in the struggle against authoritarianism waiting to be made, but The Fight’s lionization of the ACLU justly draws attention to the perpetual work that must go into preserving democratic institutions.

Director: Eli B. Despres, Josh Kriegman, Elyse Steinberg Distributor: Magnolia Pictures Running Time: 96 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Flesh and Blood at 35: Medieval Ironies

By all accounts, this should have been Paul Verhoeven’s Vera Cruz.

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Flesh and Blood
Photo: Orion Pictures

Paul Verhoeven’s Flesh and Blood is styled on screen as Flesh + Blood, as though the filmmaker were consciously working out an algorithm to account for his artistic sensibilities. By all accounts, this should have been his Vera Cruz: a down-and-dirty medieval romp that adumbrates the fallout of former partners in carnage parting ways and turning on each other. But the burdens of helming a logistically convoluted international co-production, wrangling a diverse and opinionated cast, and running the gauntlet of studio interference in the central storyline inevitably took their toll. What resulted is a solid actioner with flashes of brilliance. Outrageous in its unabashed blend of ultraviolence and profanation, Flesh and Blood stands as another testament to its director’s determination not to push the envelope, but rather to fail to recognize the envelope’s very existence in the first place.

In other words, Flesh and Blood is the anti-Ladyhawke, that other Middle Ages-set epic starring Rutger Hauer to come out in 1985. In place of the latter’s lush romanticism, complete with tortured shape-shifting lovers separated by a churchman’s curse, and a helpful little burglar played by Ferris Bueller, we’re treated over the course of the film to the more dubious spectacle of a gang rape and a catapult flinging plague-ridden dog carcass into a besieged stronghold. “Pretty strong meat there,” as the sniffling film critic in “Sam Peckinpah’s ’Salad Days,’” one of Monty Python’s funniest sketches, would have observed. However compromised the central conceit, moments of brazen effrontery help Flesh and Blood effectively shatter the staid sheen of chivalry studiously cultivated by many a medieval film.

Then, too, there’s Verhoeven’s cheeky appropriation of religious iconography for more sanguinary martial purposes. Early on, the sword-for-hire Martin (Hauer) unearths a statue of St. Martin of Tours, a saint with a sword, which the mercenary band of brothers’ resident cardinal (Ronald Lacey) promptly declares a sign from God above. Throughout Flesh and Blood, they will use this relic as a tool for divination to guide their way (with questionable results). Late in the film, Verhoeven brilliantly frames a shot with the saint in the background and Martin, a veritable double in the flesh, whetting his sword in the foreground. Needless to say, Martin’s proclivities are far from sanctified (witness the aforementioned sexual assault).

Beyond the portentous irony contained in these saintly invocations, Verhoeven doubtless has a larger point: Throughout history, relics and iconography have been used as armaments in battles between cultures and religions. They have a double meaning, seemingly proclaiming: “Not only is your god my devil, but my god has sanctioned, through martial figures like Martin of Tours, the deployment of all-too-earthly means by which to prove it.” In the end, the film’s greatest irony, and the often-pedestrian narrative’s most brilliant stroke, isn’t to decide in favor or against Martin. He’s of a piece with his nature, and he leaves the story as he entered it: unchanged and unbowed by the carnage he’s both witness to and agent of.

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Jonathan Glazer Debuts Strasbourg 1518, a Collaboration in Isolation

The short was inspired by a powerful involuntary mania that took hold of the citizens of Strasbourg just over 500 years ago.

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Strasbourg 1518
Photo: Academy Films/BBC

We’re likely a few years away from catching glimpse of Jonathan Glazer’s long-awaited follow-up to Under the Skin, a Holocaust drama being produced by A24. Until then, fans of the filmmaker will have to be content with his latest short, Strasbourg 1518, a “collaboration in isolation” according to A24 that was inspired by a powerful involuntary mania that gripped citizens of Strasbourg just over 500 years ago.

According to a Guardian article from 2018, a bizarre dancing epidemic took hold of several hundred people in Strasbourg “over the course of three roasting-hot months in 1518,” leading to several dozen deaths. A condition characterized by intense inflammation of the skin, St. Anthony’s Fire, or ergotism, results from long-term ergot poisoning, but in his 2009 book A Time to Dance, a Time to Die, historian John Waller identifies material, cultural, and spiritual causes, such as bad harvests and the arrival of syphilis, for this and other such incidents.

In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, it’s easy to see how Glazer’s mind was drawn to these not-uncommon dancing raves. Collaborating with some of the greatest dancers working today, Glazer sees in his subjects’ body-moving a profound feeling of protest, a lashing out against, yes, disease but also feelings of isolation. It’s a sensation perhaps best described by Waller himself about the 1518 dancing pandemic: “The minds of the choreomaniacs were drawn inwards, tossed about on the violent seas of their deepest fears.”

Strasbourg 1518 was co-commissioned by London-based arts organization Artangel and the Sadler’s Wells dance house and produced by Academy Films for BBC Films and BBC Arts. The film can be watched in the U.S. exclusively at us.strasbourg1518.film.

See below for the short’s trailer:

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Interview: Dave Franco on The Rental, His Genre Influences, and Future Projects

The actor discusses collaborating with Joe Swanberg and a wildly talented cast on his directorial debut.

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Dave Franco
Photo: Allyson Riggs

After a series of bit roles in television and film throughout the aughts, Dave Franco won himself a breakout role in Phil Lord and Chris Miller’s 21 Jump Street that seemed to prime the actor for a future as the star of many a stoner comedy. And while he has memorably flexed his ad-libbing skills in comedies such as Neighbors over the years, the actor’s recent work—most memorably in 6 Balloons, alongside Abbi Jacobson, and Joe Swanberg’s HBO series Easy—points to his desire to stay ever-changing and not limit himself.

Now, with The Rental, the 35-year-old actor adds director to his list of credits. Co-written with Swanberg, the film finds Franco drawing inspiration not only from many a horror classic, most memorably John Carpenter’s Halloween and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining, but also from the directors he says he’s been lucky to have worked with over the years, including Barry Jenkins, Noah Baumbach, and his older brother, James Franco. The Rental is a slow-burn horror thriller about a weekend vacation that goes awry when two brothers and their significant others rent a seemingly perfect Airbnb property somewhere along the Pacific Coast.

Shortly after The Rental premiered to more than 1,300 guests at the Vineland Drive-In in Los Angeles, I had a chance to speak with Franco about shooting of his film, collaborating with Swanberg and his wildly talented cast, his future directorial ambitions, and more.

Is there a specific inspiration for The Rental?

The idea was inspired by my own paranoia about the concept of home sharing. The country is as divided as it’s ever been, and no one trusts each other, yet we trust staying in the home of a stranger simply because of a few five-star reviews online. And in reality, while we were shooting the film, there were new articles coming out every week about homeowners with hidden cameras in their place. And I still use all of the home-sharing apps. In fact, I stayed in an Airbnb while shooting the film. I was trying to explore this disconnect where, even though we’re all aware of the risks of staying in a stranger’s home, we still do it. Why do we subject ourselves to that knowing we’re potentially putting ourselves in danger?

How did you end up working with Joe Swanberg on the film?

I wanted to write the film with Joe because his main strengths lie in characters and relationships. Our goal from the beginning was to create a tense relationship drama where the interpersonal issues between the characters were just as thrilling as the fact that there’s a psycho killer lurking in the shadows. At its core, the film really is about these characters and their relationships, and then we sprinkled a horror element on top to help accentuate the problems that they’re going through. But when there are issues in your own romantic relationships, that can be as scary as anything else, even physical danger from a psycho killer.

What directors stand out who may have helped you the most in terms of taking the leap from actor to feature film director?

I’ve been lucky enough to work with a handful of really, really great directors—people like Barry Jenkins, Noah Baumbach, Seth Rogen, my brother, Phil Lord and Chris Miller—and the biggest thing I took from that whole group of them is, in general, they all create very safe, comfortable environments on set where they really encourage everyone to voice their opinions if they think that it will help the film in any way. And so, essentially, there are no egos on set and the main rule is the best idea wins, no matter who it’s coming from. I definitely tried to adopt that mindset for my film as well.

You immediately establish tension between the two brothers with an allusion to a possible infidelity, and this tension methodically builds to a breaking point. I know you’re a fan of clever genre films, so I’m curious whether there are any ones in particular that inspired you to capture that tension on screen.

Ari Aster, Jordan Peele, Sean Durkin, Amy Seimetz, David Robert Mitchell, and Jeremy Saulnier are all making projects that are so nuanced and atmospheric. Their films take their time to creep up on you, as opposed to a lot of horror films that rely too heavily on cheap jump scares and, ultimately, feel disposable. I was lucky enough to convince Sean Durkin to produce my film, and he ended up being somewhat of a mentor to me, giving me the confidence to make a horror film that didn’t have many jump scares. He would remind me that we had a compelling story and there was enough inherent tension between these characters that we didn’t need to push the horror, that it was all simmering under the surface and that we could just let it build and naturally come out over the course of the film.

Your wife, Alison Brie, appeared in Scream 4, so it was great to see her working again in a similar genre because, though it’s a slow burner, The Rental is a slasher film. I’m curious about your process when it came to curating this particular cast of actors.

Alison has a blast jumping back into it and letting go. I’ve obviously always known that she’s an incredible actress, but when I was in a position where I was watching her intently for five straight weeks, I realized that she’s one of the best. She’s so unique in her ability to balance heavy drama with moments of levity, sometimes within a single scene. And, so, it was a pleasure for me just to see her in that light and just kind of spend time with her in that way. It just continued to develop an even greater appreciation for each other.

Regarding Dan Stevens, I’ve always loved him as a performer, especially when he’s working in the genre arena, as in Adam Wingard’s The Guest and FX’s Legion. But in those projects, he’s playing characters who are slightly heightened, so I was excited to see him in a role that felt a little more grounded and human. And one of his best skills is that he’s really incredible at playing slightly villainous characters, where there are certain actors who play villains and audiences immediately turn on them when they start to make unethical choices. But Dan has so much fun with these types of roles—he really relishes in them—and as an audience, you can’t help but root for him, even when he’s making horrible decisions.

Sheila’s mainly known for her work in Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, where she plays a vampire. And she’s incredible in that film, but she’s not able to emote very much because that’s not what vampires do. I then saw her in Jeremiah Zagar’s film We the Animals. She’s only in a supporting role in that film, but she’s able to bring so much soul and compassion to her character in a finite amount of screen time. And after seeing that, I knew that she was perfect for Mina. She has this inherent strength to her, but she can also show such a vulnerability when the scene calls for it, and that was the perfect duality for Mina, who’s very strong-willed but who can crumble at any moment.

And then, finally, Jeremy Allen White is mainly known for his work on Shameless, and I’ve admired him from afar for a long time. He has this raw energy that feels unpredictable yet extremely down to earth. And the character of Josh is difficult to pull off because he has this rage inside of him, but at the same time he’s very delicate and in touch with his emotional side, and I think Jeremy is one of a handful of actors who could pull that off.

The film was timely when you wrote it, but even more so now with the pandemic, civil unrest, and unprecedented political corruption. It may resonate even more with audiences now. Who could’ve anticipated that?

Exactly. Sometimes a film’s success really revolves around the timing of when it comes out.

Are you already thinking about your next feature?

Yeah. I have a pretty strong idea for a sequel to this film, if I am lucky enough to have the opportunity to carry on with the story. And in addition to that, my wife and I have written a romantic comedy during the quarantine that I would direct and she would act in. It’s a slightly elevated version of the genre, and it’s inspired by such classics as Rob Reiner’s When Harry Met Sally and Nora Ephron’s Sleepless in Seattle.

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Review: Radioactive Fails to Make Marie Curie’s Story a Very Human One

Marjane Satrapi’s film could have benefited from the tangy humor and cynicism of her graphic novels.

2

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Radioactive
Photo: Amazon Studios

Marjane Satrapi’s Radioactive, an adaptation of Lauren Redniss’s 2010 book Radioactive: Marie & Pierre Curie, a Tale of Love and Fallout, is a biopic about a heroic historical figure who battled the prejudices of her time to ultimately change the world. But while that description might conjure up memories of somewhat square award-hungry films like Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, this isn’t a historical story that remains safely locked in the past, as the restless energy and playful inventiveness that Satrapi brings to her film keeps it from fitting so easily into any particular category.

Rosamund Pike stars as the Polish-born Maria Salomea Skłodowska, who moved to Paris in the 1890s to pursue her education. Following a framing sequence in which the elderly scientist is taken to a hospital in 1934, the film shows her as a bright and prickly researcher being kicked out of a Parisian university by an administrator (Simon Russel Beale) who huffs and puffs about her impertinence. Not long after, she’s courted by another researcher, Pierre Curie (Sam Riley), who knows the right way to flirt with such a focused and intense personality: “I read your paper.” Taken to see Pierre’s gloomy lab, she pronounces it “basic,” but with her customary air of slight perturbation, she agrees to work there and soon marry him.

The actual work that Marie and Pierre get up to in that lab is dispensed with in a few brisk descriptions and the type of explanatory narrated animation sequences that CSI made a cliché years ago. In what looks like a deliberate choice on Satrapi’s part, she emphasizes the intense physical labor involved in the Curies’ search for what causes radiation to emanate from uranium more than their intellectual theorizing. Marie had to crush tons of pitchblende (a uranium-rich ore) by hand and mix it with noxious chemicals before studying the extracted material with Pierre’s electrometer. In relatively short order, the wife-and-husband pair announce that they’ve discovered not one but two new elements: radium and polonium.

The way the film tells it, fame came easy for the Curies. In one initially comic yet foreboding scene, Pierre shows Marie a series of commercial products wanting to cash in on their glowing discovery: radium matches, chocolate, and even chewing gum. However, that acceptance was likely because the sexist scientific establishment could better stomach Marie’s seeming impertinence (“I’m going to prove them wrong, just like Newton did”) when she was paired with a man, and soon turns against her after a tabloid scandal reminds the French that she’s a foreigner. Although Marie bristles at being looked over—raging in one scene at Pierre for accepting the Nobel Prize in his name only—the film steers away from such considerations toward the smoldering intensity of the Curies’ intellectual and emotional romance.

With Anthony Dod Mantle’s lushly luminous cinematography at her disposal, Satrapi gives her story a fantastical tone that resonates well with Marie’s brooding and inward-looking personality. A beautifully prismatic rendering of Loie Fuller’s “Fire Dance” at the Folies Bergère helps illustrate the richness of Marie’s thinking. In a daring dramatic choice, after the Curies become famous and start looking for uses for their discoveries, the film drops in flash-forwards that illustrate the results of their research. These short segments show everything from a Cleveland hospital in 1957 where a boy with cancer receives radiation treatment to the bombing of Hiroshima, a Nevada atomic bomb test, and the Chernobyl meltdown. Each are beautifully composed, dreamlike interludes with eye-popping colors so over-saturated that they verge on the nightmarish (one scene in a fake suburb built to be annihilated in the bomb test is so garishly colored it feels like the filmmakers are trying to one-up Tim Burton).

But while those moments bring to the film a dynamism and relevance that many historical narratives lack, they also come at the detriment of the primary plotline. Pike and Riley are convincingly enraptured with each other, but the thin and repetitive nature of Jack Thorne’s script becomes more glaring as the Curies’ relationship advances and the poisonous effects of their exposure to radium takes a vicious toll on their bodies. A dose of the tangy humor and cynicism that enlivens Satrapi’s graphic novels could have brought some life to the somewhat moribund last third of the film in particular. While its inventively unstuck-in-time structure dramatically refracts Marie Curie’s discoveries into the 20th century’s many technological horrors and glories, Radioactive ultimately fails to make her story a very human one.

Cast: Rosamund Pike, Sam Riley, Simon Russell Beale, Sian Brooke, Aneurin Barnard, Drew Jacoby Director: Marjane Satrapi Screenwriter: Jack Thorne Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 109 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020

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Review: The Rental Is Scarier Before It Becomes a Conventional Shocker

Dave Franco has a mighty command of silence as a measurement of emotional aftershock.

2.5

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The Rental
Photo: IFC Films

Dave Franco’s directorial debut, The Rental, abounds in atmosphere and distinctively honors the individual rhythms of each member of its ensemble cast. However, a well-calibrated sense of “wrongness,” generated by tensions existing among the characters and intensified by a beautiful but forbidding setting, is eventually revealed to be scarier than Franco and co-screenwriter Joe Swanberg’s ultimate explanation for what’s awry.

The Rental is two films at once: a seriocomic study of how sex undermines the ambitions of talented thirtysomethings, in the key of Swanberg’s films as a director, and a well-staged but ordinary slasher movie that has virtually nothing subtextually to do with what preceded it. It’s as if Franco hits an “off” switch halfway through the film and starts all over again.

The Rental opens on one of its most suggestive shots. Charlie (Dan Stevens) and Mina (Sheila Vand) are hunched over a computer at work, reading about a lovely cliffside Airbnb, with a huge, open house and a hot tub on the porch and woods to lend the setting a sense of privacy. The body language between Charlie and Mina is so casually intimate that we take them for a couple, until Charlie’s brother, Josh (Jeremy Allen White), stops by to pick Mina up.

Josh and Mina are dating, and Mina and Charlie are partners in an unspecified startup that appears to be on the verge of success. Charlie is actually married to Michelle (Alison Brie), who has a way of isolating herself from the group over the course of their weekend vacation along the Pacific Ocean, seemingly—and perhaps subconsciously—determined to physicalize her constant sense of feeling left out, and of being upstaged in Charlie’s affections by Mina. (Charlie has a habit of complimenting Mina, to Michelle, a little too enthusiastically.)

These scenes have a nervy subtlety, pivoting on the familiar Swanbergian theme of young-ish creatives who’re unsure as to whether to try to stay young by taking vaguely defined risks or embrace the comforts of yuppie conformity. And the Airbnb reflects the characters’ aspirations and their accompanying uncertainty about those aspirations back to them. The place is luxurious and comfortable but lonely; it’s so big that it encourages the group to splinter into new arrangements, allowing buried grudges and insecurities to surface.

Charlie and Josh have an unresolved, macho brotherly rivalry, and Charlie resents ne’er-do-well Josh’s inexplicable coupling with Mina. Pointedly, we also learn that Josh has a history of violence. Threatening to bring this inchoate bitterness and hostility to a head is the renter of the Airbnb, Taylor (Toby Huss), who seems to enter the building at his own discretion and has a habit of saying creepy things to the women, especially to Mina, who’s of Middle Eastern descent and believes Taylor is racist for ignoring her own request for the Airbnb.

Franco allows this wealth of backstory to arise naturally, and he has a mighty command of silence as a measurement of emotional aftershock, in the wake of careless or mean-spirited comments, and as a precursor to rationalizing reckless actions. The film’s first half concerns the terror of revealing your true emotional hand at the expense of chaos, and this terror is afforded a literal horror-movie symbol when two of the characters, in the wake of a very reckless action, discover that someone has outfitted the Airbnb with cameras, including one in a showerhead. We’re primed to suspect Taylor, who’s so conspicuously odd that you’ll probably think he’s being presented as a red herring. And we’re also led to wonder if Mina’s heightened sensitivity to perceived discriminatory slights is in itself a cause of violence—a startling idea for a 21st-century horror film that’s broached and quickly abandoned by the filmmakers.

When he reveals the film’s true menace, Franco squanders the psychosexual, generational, and political dynamics that he’s spent the better part of his running time establishing. The intention is probably to show that the squabbles of people’s lives mean existentially little in the face of death. In reality, though, it feels as if Franco is using horror-movie tropes—as ancient as the masked brute stalking foggy woods—in order to get out of a corner, relieving himself of the chore of dramatizing a group’s reorientation in the midst of several catastrophes. It’s as if we were watching a tense episode of Swanberg’s Easy only to change the channel halfway through to settle on an unusually proficient Friday the 13th sequel.

Cast: Dan Stevens, Alison Brie, Sheila Vand, Jeremy Allen White, Toby Huss, Connie Wellman Director: Dave Franco Screenwriter: Dave Franco, Joe Swanberg Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 88 min Rating: R Year: 2020

Where to Watch The Rental:
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