It hasn’t been easy for Mickey Rourke fans over the last 15 years. He’s given us much cause for complaint, and even despair. He has forced us to defend the indefensible, and say things to our scornful friends along the lines of, “I think there’s a lot to like in Exit In Red.” I have grasped at straws, I have seen terrible straight-to-video movies and soft-core porn, I even suffered through the abysmal Another 9 1/2 Weeks which actually caused me pain because of how tired and defeated he seemed. I have stuck up for him in the face of dwindling evidence of his genius, but I am not a fair-weather fan. Fifteen years of badness is difficult to withstand. His early promise was such that it galvanized an entire generation of young actors, making them want to do better, push harder, take more risks, and then, it felt like overnight, he left us. Where did he go? The details are coming out now, and much was obvious at the time as well. He flamed out publicly. He got involved in a crazy-making tabloid-frenzy marriage. He hated acting, became bored with it, so went back to being a boxer (his first love). Then followed the strange (and tragic, to me) morphing of his face into something unrecognizable. He had multiple operations on his face due to his boxing, but I think there was a little lip-and-cheek-plumping action going on before that. Something happened to him in the early 90s, and you can see it unfold if you watch his films in chronological order. It made me really sad at the time.
The first Mickey Rourke film I saw was Angel Heart. I was in college, studying acting. His performance in that film riveted me, made me almost nervous, because I wondered if I could ever be that raw, that good, in my own work. This was not a singular experience. I have spoken with many of my actor friends and it was the same for them as well. This was a contemporary, blazing onto the scene, with work that rivaled the best I knew from the past: Brando, Cagney, Clift. The only equivalent I can think of is when Russell Crowe exploded onto the American scene with L.A. Confidential. I had been aware of Crowe for some time, having loved him in Proof and Romper Stomper, but it was like a meteor from outer space when he starred in L.A. Confidential. Obviously it wasn’t just actors who loved Crowe, and Rourke, but there was a special lightning-bolt of excitement in that community at the prospect of these new guys—doing exciting, powerful work—inspiring us. My friend David and I went out after seeing Angel Heart to Bickford’s, and sat up all night, ranting and raving about Mickey Rourke, especially the relentless last standoff between Rourke and De Niro when Rourke says “I know who I am” probably twenty times in a row. I kept thinking he would stop, that there were not further depths he could possibly plumb in the same line, but he kept proving me wrong. This was a man not only at the top of his own game, but the top of anyone else’s as well.
Turns out, I had seen Mickey Rourke before, I just didn’t know that it was him. It was in Body Heat, where he has one chilling star-making scene as the arsonist with a conscience. He dominates that scene with a sense of taut energy mixed with gentleness and relaxation (Mickey Rourke’s stock-in-trade) and he is one of the takeaways from that film. That was his breakthrough.
As far as I was concerned back then, he was “it.” He was the one I wanted to watch. New Mickey Rourke movies were anticipated like the release of the latest Harry Potter. And for a while there, it felt like he kept topping himself, he kept fulfilling on that promise first seen in Body Heat. It was an extraordinary run.
He was captivating in Diner, and the 50s seemed to me to be his proper milieu. There was something old-school about him. He belonged in diners at 3 a.m., with a cup of coffee and a crumpled newspaper and some floozy dame crying about him across town. He was not a modern man. He was unashamedly masculine, yet with that undercurrent of softness and vulnerability that all of the great old movie stars (Bogart, in particular) had. He would be completely at home in Only Angels Have Wings, or Dawn Patrol or The Big Sleep. His manliness was not a pose or anything ironic. It was not defensive or postured. It was authentic. He was a throwback, but it just goes to show you that that kind of energy is always in style, and it went a long way in describing his appeal. Crowe had it too in L.A. Confidential. A pre-“enlightened” man. Robert Mitchum is another actor Rourke reminds me of. Rourke had the same drawling easiness, the same tangible potential for danger and violence, but also the same sizzling sex appeal that turn women movie-goers into puddles in the aisle. Rourke’s sense of humor is wry, a little bit pained, he is always distant from events in some way, there is some long horizon he always seems to be looking at which keeps him from full involvement. Perhaps it is an awareness of death, of failure, of the foibles of mankind. His cards are held close to the chest. He is tough, but he is not dumb. You can see this at work in Rumble Fish, where he plays the mythical Motorcycle Boy, one of his loveliest performances. He belongs in black and white. Even his color films seem like they should have been in black and white.
It is interesting to me that Rourke so often played “stars,” meaning he played the person in the group of friends who had that extra something: smarts, pizazz, charisma. You can see it in Diner, The Pope of Greenwich Village, Rumble Fish. Rourke was never really an ensemble player—he was too much of an individual for that, and his presence, even very early on before he was a star, tipped the balance of a movie. He was like a magnet, drawing all of the attention. He couldn’t help it. But he was lucky, then, because he played characters who were also like that, in their smaller scope of life. You don’t need to be a star, in the Hollywood sense, with a salary and an entourage, to be a star. We all know guys like that, guys who are not famous, but who have a glitter to them, something “extra.” It could be the security guard at the building where you work who throws out flirtatious comments as you walk by, and instead of being weird or offensive, it makes your day. Or it could be the old guy at the corner coffee shop, who sits there every day, doing the crossword, holding court, over-tipping the breakfast waitress just because he knows it’s the right thing to do, dispensing advice and opinions that everyone remembers.
These people are “stars.” Mickey Rourke played guys like that. Boogie, in Diner, is down on his luck, he’s a hairdresser, he’s wild, he’s kind of a loser, actually, in the surface of his life. But he is ’the one’ of that whole group. He is connected to something deeper, his own sense of truth perhaps, or an existential yearning for something more. He wonders if there is something “more” than the narrow circle he currently resides in. He has “it,” star quality, and all of his friends look to him for advice and support and validation. He has his own planetary forcefield. Charlie, in The Pope of Greenwich Village is the same type of guy, a “pope” no less, someone who walks down the street, all dude-d up with his manicured nails and shiny spats. A man aware of the sensation he makes, just by walking into the room. Heads turn. “Do I know that guy?” Henry, in Barfly, although an alcoholic, fringe-dwelling mess, also pulls attention towards him, mostly negative attention, but it’s just the flip side of the same coin. Beneath the narcotic haze, his intelligence flickers, making him individual, funny, unexpectedly romantic, and still somehow sensitive. He also can take more punches than any other man and still remain standing. This gives him a certain cache in the sorry swirl of a world he resides in. He is notorious. He couldn’t be anonymous if he tried.
Rourke needed to play people like that. His star quality was so intense that it could not be submerged or ignored; it had to be utilized and acknowledged in whatever role he was playing. Marlon Brando had the same thing. It is difficult to cast these men properly. It is difficult to place them in a context. Their force of personality tends to take over the story, whether that is right for the project or not. Elia Kazan tells stories of how troubled he was during rehearsals for the Broadway production of Streetcar Named Desire with Brando as Stanley and Jessica Tandy as Blanche. He knew that the audience sympathy should reside with Blanche, but Brando’s power made him undeniably the focus of the entire production, and audiences started to “side” with Stanley. They cheered when he raped Blanche. It upset Brando, too, because he felt that men like Stanley were why the world was such a horrible place, but he couldn’t help what he was doing up on that stage. He simply entered a scene, saying nothing, and couldn’t help but pull all of the attention his way. That kind of magnetism cannot be easily explained, but, like pornography, you know it when you see it. It cannot be faked.
Rourke’s star-power ended up isolating him more and more, and you can see it in films like 9 1/2 Weeks, where that character floats in an unconnected world, alone, his only connection to humanity through the brief affair with the woman. Although that film was a giant hit and made him the sexiest man in the world for a brief season, it is a harbinger of things to come. No longer will Rourke sit across the diner table from a group of his friends, shooting the shit, living and listening, joking and advising. He will be alone. In the late-80s/early-90s, Rourke made, in succession, Wild Orchid, Desperate Hours and Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man, and that, as they say, was that. Rourke did not recover.
Obviously, the desert that Rourke found himself in in the 90s was not just due to bad movie choices. He was notoriously difficult and combative. He was not well-liked. He was violent. He became un-insurable. He bad-talked other actors. He knew he had talent, he knew he was at the forefront of the new pack, but he could not reconcile the fact that this was also a business. He hated “suits” and authority figures. He didn’t give a shit who he pissed off. One of his major errors in judgment was bad-mouthing Sam Goldwyn Jr. after 1987’s IRA thriller A Prayer for the Dying, blaming Goldwyn for the movie’s failure. Doors began to slam shut on Rourke, doors of opportunity and second chances, and he didn’t realize what was happening until there was no way out.
What a spectacular and self-inflicted fall from grace.
In the late-90s, Rourke started to appear again in movies that people could actually see, directed by people you had actually heard of. The newer batch of directors were less interested in his past shenanigans and terrible reputation. They remembered his tender and violent genius in the 80s and wanted him in their projects. Sean Penn put him in The Pledge, and Rourke’s five minutes onscreen in that film is as wrenching and shattering as any acting I have ever seen. It is nearly unwatchable. You want to look away to give that character some privacy in his grief. I remember the buzz in my group of actor-friends after The Pledge came out. “Did you see Mickey Rourke’s scene?” we asked each other, as excited as the tuxedoed waiters at Harmonia Gardens were at the prospect of Dolly Levi’s impending return. “Did you see Mickey Rourke? Did you see Mickey Rourke?”
As corny as it sounds, I never got over missing him. I never reconciled myself to the fact that he was no longer on the scene. He had elevated the art form, he had reminded us what we loved about good acting. Sean Penn, no slouch himself, tells of how, as a younger actor, he would sneak onto the sets of Mickey Rourke movies just to watch Rourke act. When Rourke stepped aside, he laid the playing-ground clear for other actors because, as long as he was there, he couldn’t help but dominate. It was his nature, his talent.
To contemplate the long-deferred dream, that Mickey Rourke might return, was exhilarating.
One night in 2000, I sat in a small movie theater in New York, part of a sparse, polite audience, to watch Steve Buscemi’s Animal Factory, starring Willem Dafoe and Edward Furlong. A rather typical prison drama, with a nice performance by Defoe and a terrible amateur performance by Furlong, the entire thing comes alive every time Furlong goes back to his cell, because his character’s roommate is a cross-dressing queen with no teeth named Jan the Actress. Jan the Actress has a hard oiled body, but she dresses in frilly bras and cut-off vests. She reads celebrity magazines and pontificates on life in a friendly way from her bottom bunk. She has a long rambling monologue about how she wants to go to “Paris, France” and “sit in a motherfucking cherry tree on the Champs Elysees,” and while this character could have been a cliche, a stereotype she is not. She emerges as a living, interesting human being.
She has a moment when, in the distance, she can hear the slamming of a cell door, not even her own, and it is as though, for the first time in her life, she feels what it means to be behind bars. The character probably started off in juvenile hall as a teenager and graduated to more serious adult crimes. She is fully “institutionalized.” There are no lines to suggest this, but it is all in that moment, the brief flicker of panic and despair in her eyes at the sound of a cell door clanging shut in the distance. It is a terrific cameo. I missed that actor when he wasn’t onscreen. I was disappointed when Furlong’s character was moved to another cell block because that meant no more appearances of Jan the Actress, and so the movie, for me, never quite regains its balance after Jan the Actress exits the action. Jan is in the film for probably fifteen minutes all put together, but you feel, through the rest of the film, that something is missing. I stayed to watch the credits roll and when I saw that that vivacious flirty and logical-minded criminal (Furlong, in trouble, asks Jan what he should do. Jan replies, “’What are you gonna do’, sugarplum? You’re gonna get a fucking knife, that’s what you’re gonna do.”) was actually played by Mickey Rourke, I gasped out loud in the theater, frozen in my seat. That was Mickey Rourke?
Here he was, yet again dominating an entire movie, not just when he was in it, but when he was not in it as well.
Rourke is the reason to see that film.
Sin City was the beginning of what people are now calling “the comeback.” One of the things that is interesting about Rourke and the roles he is choosing in this second or third wave of his career is that directors and writers are openly utilizing the baggage Rourke brings to every part: the memory we all have of his arresting, almost fragile beauty, the years of obscurity, the wild-man persona. These things must be dealt with, they cannot be ignored. Rourke cannot now just slip back into an ensemble drama. He brings too much with him. The only way to handle such a situation is to deal with it head-on, and Robert Rodriguez’s Sin City did just that. It was based on a graphic novel, so the pressure to achieve kitchen-sink realism was gone, something that worked in Rourke’s favor.
He could be grotesque, he could be campy, he could (as he used to do) allow us in the audience to project all kinds of things onto him. He was strong enough, he could take it. He growled and sneered, he mourned his lost love (a hooker he spent one night with, but even that would resonate for someone like Mickey Rourke, and he knows that we know that), he kicked major ass left and right, and in the end, it was near-impossible to kill him. He is run over repeatedly, he falls out of windows, he is shot at … but he keeps getting back up. Metaphor for Rourke the actor? Of course it is. Rourke is obviously just fulfilling the needs of this particular character here, but it’s never that simple. He cannot “disappear.” He never could. The charisma of his persona was too strong. Early on, when he was in projects worthy of him (Pope of Greenwich Village, Angel Heart), the result was often powerful, riveting. But later on, when the ease of stardom was taken away from him, he just looked lazy, adrift, bored. He knew he didn’t have to work as hard as other actors to pull focus, so he just stood there, smoldering and whispering and it all began to look schticky and cheap. He was imitating himself. It was painful to watch.
In Sin City, Mickey Rourke fans from way back could watch him take that persona, that persona we missed so much, and pour it into this brilliantly high-camp venture. He didn’t have to carry the film—there were other leads—but, again, he dominates. I think everyone is good in that movie, but he is what I remember. It was a thrilling moment for diehard fans. It felt like … something was about to happen. Sin City wasn’t it, but it felt like a precursor, a deep breath before taking the plunge.
Over the last couple of months, the text messages and emails and phone calls have been flying back and forth amongst my group of friends. “Did you hear about Rourke in The Wrestler?” “When does it open again?” “I can’t wait!” “Is he back? Do you think he’s back?”
I saw an advance screening of The Wrestler a few weeks ago and there is a moment, early on in the film, when he staggers down the street, through a bleak New Jersey morning, a great hulk of a man, too big for his clothes. His face looks battered and puffy, and suddenly, out of nowhere, I got an acute and clear memory of his performance as the deformed criminal in 1989’s Johnny Handsome. In the opening shots of that film, “Johnny Handsome” skulks down the street; his face has a ballooning forehead, a bulbous nose, a cleft palate. We know it is Mickey Rourke because he is the star of the film, but we cannot tell it is him. The story of that film, of “Johnny Handsome” getting an operation on his face that leaves him looking like, well, a young and handsome Mickey Rourke, is the reverse of what we have seen happen in Mickey Rourke’s real life. It is one of those odd art-meeting-biography truths.
In The Wrestler, Mickey Rourke’s actual face looks like the makeup-job he had done in that movie almost 20 years ago, and it’s a strange, tragic thing to contemplate. It is not my place to ponder why Mickey Rourke did what he did to his beautiful face. I have some theories. We’ve all got theories. They are, ultimately, irrelevant. What struck me, in watching his performance in The Wrestler, is how he consciously references us back to those old performances. He lets us remember him how he was. He is not trying to hide anymore, like he was in, say, Wild Orchid, where we, the audience, were supposed to look at his plumped-out cheeks and lips and not ask ourselves the question, “What the hell is he doing to his face?” Now he knows that we know. No more lying and smokescreens. It’s all out now. No need to hide or pretend anymore. He has set it up that way. The change in his face is an undeniable fact, and the film does not soft-pedal it. The ghost of the old Mickey Rourke does hover around him still, but in the context of The Wrestler, with its opening montage of newspaper clippings of his old wrestling triumphs, it is perfect. The baggage Mickey Rourke brings doesn’t just work, it is essential to the film. He owns it.
Down on his luck, Rourke’s character Randy “The Ram” Robinson takes a job working behind a deli counter in a local grocery store. He is nervous. He treats his first day almost like a wrestling match, getting pumped up to be with the public again. On the underside of this is, of course, his existential despair at what his life has come to. What about his dreams? What about who he used to be? What about the glory, the fame? But “The Ram” is a survivor, if nothing else. This guy doesn’t just act tough, he is tough. He stands behind the deli counter and the customers start coming. It is my favorite scene in the film, and tears flooded my eyes as I watched Mickey Rourke treat his service job like a Borscht Belt comedy club. He is peppy, humorous, he banters with customers, he makes sure that the person walking away from the counter has had a nice experience, something that might brighten their day. He is “on.” A small woman in her 70s comes up to place her order, and he jokes with her, “What you havin’ spring chicken?” There is pathos in the scene, because you can’t help but wonder what would have become of such a beautiful spirit if he had had a different life. But there is also joy because he is doing his best with the hand that he’s been dealt, and isn’t that what most of us are trying to do in life? Even in bad times?
It makes me realize that, yet again, even though Mickey Rourke is playing someone in The Wrestler who could be classified as a “loser,” this character is a “star,” not just because he was a once-famous wrestler, but because he has the personality for it. You either have it or you don’t. Even when his career as a wrestler is taken from him, due to having a heart attack, he finds a way to channel it elsewhere, meeting and greeting people on their level, unafraid to be corny or silly, wanting, above all else, to connect.
But make no mistake, this is no romantic Rocky tale. The joy of that scene is short-lived, and events begin to conspire to push “The Ram” out of all areas that might provide comfort, love, connection.
It is a great performance, one that I am still processing and thinking about. I am not sure where Mickey Rourke fits in now. He “fit in” when he was young because he made it to the Alpha-Dog position of male Hollywood stars, and was gorgeous and sexy. He can no longer rely on those things. He must rely on something else that is much more permanent: his talent. He needs to choose wisely, and the problem still remains that it is difficult to cast Rourke properly, even more so now.
David Thomson, in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes, in regards to Rourke:
“For Mickey Rourke has rather “gone away,” leaving us to marvel over what happened to this glorious, rebellious kid actor, so tempted by silly sexual show-off, by the idea of becoming a boxer, and just being difficult, out of reach. He could come again. The guy one sees in The Rainmaker could still be waiting for his right moment, the big role, the unequivocal revelation that he has always been in charge.”
Is that time now? We Mickey Rourke fans can only sit back and remain hopeful.
After all, we’re used to waiting. We can hang on a little bit longer.
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The film’s purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taormina’s Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the children’s clothes—long and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suits—suggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, there’s a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as we’re invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know we’re being played with. This archness, which isn’t without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger don’t offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Rye’s aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the film’s shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the story’s neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the ‘70s—or, at least, modern pop culture’s impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girls’ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of “porking,” setting up a familiar “trying to get laid” scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesn’t occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesn’t come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once we’re sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Rye’s foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children aren’t making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremonies—prom, homecoming, graduation—that insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Rye’s mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme that’s traditional to teen movies: children’s fear of selling out like their parents. Which isn’t to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naïve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palma’s Carrie.
Ham on Rye’s second half is informed with a kind of survivor’s guilt that’s also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irving’s character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents who’re pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity
David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.3.5
“This place will kill you.” That’s a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyne’s dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. It’s one of those lines that sometimes captures a character’s plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that “will kill you,” as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegal—an idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.
The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amber’s father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then she’s been charging her classmates to use her family’s caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly what’s expected of him—that is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living one’s life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.
The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scène and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But there’s a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Lee’s “You Can Depend on Me.” He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the “baby gay,” as she calls him.
From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddie’s doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husband’s framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. “Anywhere!” Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that won’t kill them.
Cast: Fionn O’Shea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan O’Connor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Bad Hair Is a Fiendish, If Tonally Uneven, Satire of Racist Beauty Norms
The film has an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.2.5
The year is 1989, and while TV network Culture is considered dead weight by its parent company, its specialty in burgeoning, black-fronted music genres leaves it poised to successfully cover the sounds and styles that will dominate the next decade. Enter ex-model Zora (Vanessa Williams), the new boss with a new vision for the channel that includes rebranding it as Cult. Zora brought her own assistant, too, which puts pressure on Anna Bludso (Elle Lorraine), the assistant to Zora’s predecessor and an up-and-comer with ideas of her own, rent to pay, and something to prove. Her own natural hair gets her dirty looks from white co-workers in the lobby and a miniature lecture from Zora herself, so despite what her family and her other black co-workers might think, she follows Zora’s lead and gets a weave.
Justin Simien’s 2014 feature-length directorial debut, Dear White People, translated so neatly to an extended TV format in large part due to its plethora of characters and plot threads, and Bad Hair similarly evinces his keen eye for humanity. As in his earlier film, the characters all have a diverse range of relationships: with each other, with their own race, with their aspirations, and with the eyes of the world at large. Though someone like Zora could easily have been a thin antagonist, you instead feel the context of age, beauty norms, and societal pressure that shaped who she is and what she wants to do. Bad Hair can feel overstuffed at times, as Anna shares scenes with an ever-increasing range of characters, including her family, friends, an ex, and her skeevy landlord, but the details give the film an exciting, lived-in quality that elevates what are otherwise some markedly unsteady attempts at horror.
And as it turns out, the weaves are also alive, and they’re literally out for blood, at least those being offered at a mysterious salon where Anna, looking to make her mark on Cult as a VJ, is sent to by Zora. Their tendrils seek out oozing orifices, and their roots plant hunger in the brains of the afflicted while manifesting strange dreams. These scenes, with characters restrained and yanked off screen by hair-tuft tentacles, are initially promising, but their rhythm is all wrong. They’re choppily and timidly edited in ways that direct the eye away from the action, as if to obscure any hokeyness that might become apparent from close scrutiny. As such, you may find yourself wanting for the sturdy, kinetic ingenuity of Sam Raimi.
The film is also uncertain of how seriously to take its horror. The extreme close-up of the weave process, as the needle snakes through the tender landscape of Anna’s scalp while drawing blood, is brilliantly cringe-inducing. One memorable, repeated image of Anna’s family sitting at the table while clumps of hair descend from the cracks in the ceiling is so effective because it’s allowed to be eerie, rather than immediately undercut by a line about a support group for women with killer weaves. By the time the climax rolls into view, the film abandons any seriousness, even bringing in Lena Waithe, as the host of one of Culture’s newly canceled shows, to make a Friday the 13th reference while snarking about the horror-movie proceedings. Bad Hair unintentionally mirrors its characters’ own insecurities, teetering awkwardly between straight-faced camp and outright farce as it cuts the scare scenes to ribbons and makes jokes about itself, as if to preempt any disbelief from the audience.
Worse, the film is constantly overexplaining itself. Dear White People contained similarly blunt, into-the-camera messaging, but that felt appropriate for a setting where students are wrapped up in college politics and subjecting their ideas to class scrutiny. In Bad Hair, one character who confronts Zora utters a Freudian slip, accusing her of appealing to a “whiter” audience when she means to say “wider” audience, as though the film hasn’t so clearly been making that point from the very start, when the central channel got knowingly rebranded as Cult. The interactions between Bad Hair’s characters already convey the domination of white beauty standards and how the self dissipates when capitulating to them, so the extra steps taken to underline these themes only works to dilute them.
Cast: Elle Lorraine, Vanessa Williams, Jay Pharoah, Lena Waithe, Kelly Rowland, Laverne Cox, Chanté Adams, Ashley Blaine Featherson, Blair Underwood, Usher Raymond IV Director: Justin Simien Screenwriter: Justin Simien Distributor: Hulu Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Interview: Garrett Bradley on Exploring Human Dimensionality in Time
Bradley discusses how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
Garrett Bradley’s films assume grand proportions through their sweeping titles: America, Alone, Like, and, now, Time. Her work expands our notions of concepts and institutions central to contemporary life by interrogating the audiovisual imprints that define them in the public consciousness. These explorations expand the meaning of their thematic subjects by injecting Bradley’s deeply intentional imagery into the conversation.
The filmmaker’s latest, Time, is as much about the ineffable passage of its titular concept as it is about the cruel duration of a prison sentence. Through a delicately woven tapestry of decades-old home videos shot by self-proclaimed “abolitionist” Fox Rich over the years while her husband, Robert, was in prison and more recent footage shot by Bradley and her crew, the film captures time in all of its contradictions. When cut between commonplace scenes of Fox interfacing with the bureaucratic maze of the carceral state, the rushes of her past feel both tantalizingly close and also impossible to reclaim—all while her future with Robert appears indeterminate. Bradley’s frequent deployment of stirring piano solos by Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbrou may give Time the aura of a fairy tale as Fox faces down a seemingly insurmountable system of oppression in the name of love, yet the film never loses grounding in the everyday realities and inhumanities made normal by mass incarceration.
I spoke to Bradley shortly before Time became available worldwide on Amazon Prime. Our conversation covered what the documentary might have looked like without Fox Rich’s video archives, why she didn’t feel the need to explain racism in the film, as well as how the forces of collaboration and intuition inform her filmmaking process.
I’m blown away that such a central component of the film, Fox Rich’s personal video archives, weren’t baked in from the beginning. When she gave you that archive on the last day of filming, was it a matter of her fully trusting you? Had she forgotten they existed? Did it just dawn on her that they might make a great addition to the film?
I had no idea. When you’re working with someone so closely for a period of time, it presents all sorts of interesting emotions and challenges. At least from a filmmaker’s perspective, you’ve got all sorts of reasons why, eventually, you have to walk away from production. What I can say is it was, to my knowledge, the last day of shooting. It was in the evening, and I just remember saying to her, “I’m going to come back and show you a cut.” She was on the phone with Robert, and I remember her saying, “Hold on a second, let me get you something.” She handed me this bag of all of these mini DV tapes that ended up being about 100 hours of footage. She had not seen or looked at that footage since she shot it. I remember getting in the car, shipping it out to get transcoded and being so incredibly nervous about the fact that there were no backups for it. It was a real testament to her to her trust. But why, at that moment, I can’t say.
Without these tapes that so poetically give us a glimpse into Fox’s own history, would your film really have been Time? I can imagine it’s tough to speak to a project that was never realized, but what form and shape would your film have taken without them?
When I initially started shooting, my intention was twofold. One was to think about this film, which I was conceiving as another 13-minute Op-Docs short, as an extension of Alone, a sister film to this other film that had already come out. The intention behind that was to say, “How can I extend the conversation around incarceration, from a sort of black feminist point of view, from a familial point of view? From a point of view that that illuminates the effects of the facts.” Fox is, actually, briefly in Alone. I met her in the process of making it. And she’s a very different person than Aloné [Watts] and was navigating the system in a very different way. She was 18 years into the process of navigating the system, whereas Aloné was in the very beginning stages of that. I think, at that point, my head was really about, again, extending the conversation in a way that showed the diversification of experience within the same issue.
But then also, uniquely to Fox’s own story, I really focused in on her daily life as a way of saying if there’s anything that I’m able to illustrate in this film, if I have to stop shooting tomorrow, it’s to show how deeply embedded the system puts itself in daily life. There’s no separation between your work life, your personal life, your home life, your relationship with your children, your mother, yourself, your partner. There’s no separation between that and the system. It really unequivocally embeds itself into every element of your day.
That was my initial intention, and a lot of the footage was there. Part of the challenge in the edit when looking at it was, wow, this actually feels really two-dimensional. It feels like we have no way of my proving as a filmmaker what I knew, which was the holistic nature of who we are as human beings. We are 360-degree beings. We have context, we have history, we have experience that informs how we maneuver the present moment. How do I show that? That’s ultimately the challenge of making films, you can only tell stories and say things one frame at a time, from one dimension. I think that the film would have focused in on one element of life. It would have been very different, that’s for sure.
The film talks about how Fox’s story demonstrates the power of love as a tool of resistance. How do you convey such a radical notion without coming across naïve?
That’s a great question. Basically, it’s like, how do you make something good or bad, right? I have to say, I think in my experience, it’s been making sure that vulnerability and intention are intrinsic parts of the process. Vulnerability on all ends, as a filmmaker, as a collaborator. That there’s trust. I think the bottom line of that and respect are the ingredients of making something that I think can live outside of the opaqueness of what you’re describing.
In everything from the title of your works to the images contained within them, you maintain such a focus on redefining the way we think about giant structures and institutions in our lives. Is this a goal that you consciously set out to achieve when embarking on a new project, or are you discovering the way in which your work interacts with these notions and ideas?
I think it goes back to this idea of the sort of cinematic challenge of trying to allow things to feel as they do in the real world. Context, history, and multiple dimensions are so intrinsic to that. I think the same can be said for the macro and micro experience. That’s what we live in. We have our individual lives, but we’re a part of a larger system. And depending on who we are and how we’re moving through space, that can become oppressively clear or something that one has the privilege to forget. I think I always enter a project first from the personal. I don’t think that’s a rule though. There are other projects that I’m working on or thinking about where I’m coming at it actually from a larger scale first. I think it changes from one project to the next. But you’re right, ultimately, there’s always going to be for me a conversation between the two. The great meaning comes out of the conversation between the two.
Did you feel a need to rescue or shelter Time from the tropes of social realism or the journalistic point of view that normally pervades stories about mass incarceration or the prison-industrial complex?
There were certainly questions in the edit around how literal we wanted it to be, how much we felt the film needed to explain the minutiae of the crime, the trial, the legal system, the sentencing. Myself and Gabe Rhodes, who edited the film, as we were talking through a lot of that, I found myself feeling that to really explain it was also then to try to explain racism in America. And I’m not really sure that the film is particularly obligated to do that. Because it’s for people, and made with people, who inherently understand that and live it every day. And so when we think about obligations around certain forms of explanation, or sort of a literal proof of an explanation of the why, it can also be coded language. This idea of universality becomes coded language for who we’re actually speaking to if a majority of the people in the country are, in one way or another, affected by this issue. So, I didn’t feel that we had to do that.
How did you conceive the film’s coda? There’s something both comforting and tragic in the notion that cinema—and only cinema—can both preserve and reverse time.
I wish I had a profound answer. I struggled with this question a little bit. Because it was really at a point in the editorial process where we were just working off of instinct and emotion. And there was, riffing off of your last question before, just not even needing to have a literal reason for why we ended it the way we did. It just felt right. It felt like we were able to work with the images in a way that directly responded to what the entire film was about without having to say it in any other way. I think for some people, it works. For some people, it doesn’t. I wish I could say something more profound than that, but it was just pure instinct.
So much about this film feels like it was almost fated to come together: discovering Emahoy Tsegué-Maryam Guèbro’s music through YouTube algorithms, Fox Rich giving you her archive and transforming the project, the cosmic parallels revealed in the edit between the footage you shot and her videos. Has this transformed the way you think about artistic ownership and authorship at all?
I think my work has always inherently been collaborative. My work always starts with a series of questions, and the answers come out of conversations that are happening with people in my community are what inform a lot of the aesthetic choices. There was another project, for instance, that I was commissioned for the Whitney Biennial 2019, called A.K.A. That was me really having questions about classic American cinema and race relations between women. My instinct was to go to women that I knew and to ask them questions that I myself had, and a lot of their answers literally shaped the scenes, the camerawork, the lenses. I think Time is an extension of that same love I have for working with people.
Review: Rebecca Unimaginatively Runs a Classic Through a Netflix Filter
The film is a pretty bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.2
Ben Wheatley’s Rebecca is effective at channeling elemental fears into a glossy package, but less so at crafting characters that are more than the sum of their archetypal parts. The story is little changed from Daphne du Maurier’s 1938 Gothic novel or Alfred Hitchcock’s 1940 Oscar-winning adaptation. While staying in a posh resort on the French Riviera, an unnamed young woman (Lily James) working as traveling companion for acid-tongued, man-hunting dowager Mrs. Van Hopper (Ann Dowd), is romanced by dashing and recently widowed aristocrat Max de Winter (Armie Hammer). In quick order, the somewhat lost-seeming woman marries Max and refashioned as Mrs. de Winter, the new lady of Manderley, Max’s sprawling coastal estate that becomes her gilded cage.
Following the sunny, happy-go-lucky Riviera opening, the film pivots into psychodrama mode once it relocates north to the gloomier English seaside. Given Mrs. de Winter’s humble origins, she commits one faux pas after another. She’s riddled with class anxiety, not knowing when she will next offend Manderly’s icy housekeeper, Mrs. Danvers (Kristin Scott Thomas), the platoon of servants and other staff needed to run the massive complex, or her new husband. The unspoken rules that she keeps breaking—asking the wrong questions, venturing into the wrong rooms, studying a menu incorrectly—all seem to lead back to the same source: Manderley is still in the ghostly grip of Max’s recently deceased wife, Rebecca.
At every turn, people remind Mrs. de Winter of how little she measures up to her predecessor, some more intentionally than others, from Max’s kindly sister, Beatrice (Keely Hawes), remarking about Rebecca being one of those “annoying people everyone loves,” to Danvers rhapsodizing in openly romantic terms about her late lady being “the most beautiful creature I ever saw in my life,” to Rebecca’s rascally cousin, Jack (Sam Riley), making snide innuendos about Rebecca’s horse-taming skills. While Max doesn’t say such things openly to his young bride, his simmering rages and habit of sleepwalking at night to stare wistfully at Rebecca’s now closed-off quarters suggest his still being in the grip of an undying passion.
Much of the film’s middle section details what’s either a waking nightmare for Mrs. de Winter (the most effective parts of the story plug into relatable anxieties over being found out or not measuring up) or extensive gaslighting campaign. In either case, the primary instigator is Danvers, who despite being theoretically in charge of the estate appears to spend most of her time lurking in corners waiting for Mrs. de Winter to make another mistake. Thomas’s serenely imperious performance is one of the film’s highlights, stopping just shy of Ryan Murphy-esque grande-dame camp. Riley’s rakish gleam is similarly energizing, particularly when the story turns into a late-developing courtroom drama about how or even if Rebecca died.
As for the leads playing the mere mortals wriggling under Danvers’s unflinching glare, neither James nor Hammer measure up. James has the more difficult job of the two, needing to seem sympathetic even as Mrs. de Winter lurches from one clueless encounter to the next; the actress spends much of Rebecca blushing in joy or biting her lip while on the verge of tears, neither delivering much in the way of depth. And as Max, Hammer communicates a kind of stolid and unintelligent glumness that makes it difficult to comprehend how Mrs. de Winter could ignore so many warning signs of deep depression and anger.
One crucial problem with this new version of Rebecca, in fact, is that Max is reduced to little more than a repository of warning signs, from refusing to answer his bride’s questions to growling “Put that back!” when she dares to pick up a volume of love poetry that Rebecca had inscribed to him. Since Max has precious few plus-column characteristics that don’t fall under the categories of “handsome,” “wealthy,” and “smart dresser,” Mrs. de Winter’s travails after being trapped by her love for him are difficult to identify with.
At least the film doesn’t default to assuming that gothic necessitates a glum visual palette. The design of Manderley is spectacular, its classic English aristocratic grandeur seeming to stretch on for miles, lensed by cinematographer Laurie Rose with gorgeous chiaroscuro layering. Avoiding both the grotesquerie of some of his other work and the tight tensions of Hitchcock’s adaptation, Wheatley’s Rebecca operates instead as a less psychologically knotted and more straightforward costume drama. It’s an attractive and fairly shallow bauble of a thing that ticks off the story’s shock revelations in an efficient, if not particularly surprising, fashion.
Cast: Lily James, Armie Hammer, Keeley Hawes, Kristin Scott Thomas, Sam Riley, Ann Dowd, Bill Patterson, Tom Goodman-Hill Director: Ben Wheatley Screenwriter: Jane Goldman, Joe Shrapnel, Anna Waterhouse Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 122 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: This Is Not a Movie Is a Smart, Clear-Eyed Tribute to Robert Fisk
The documentary adroitly demonstrates that Fisk is still motivated by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism.3
As a boy in the London suburbs, Robert Fisk’s career aspirations were shaped by seeing Foreign Correspondent. In 1972, Fisk got the seemingly glamorous job that Joel McCrea had in the Alfred Hitchcock classic, and has been at it ever since. But reporting from overseas is messier in real life than in scripted drama, which is why Yung Chang’s engrossing portrait of the 74-year-old journalist is titled This Is Not a Movie.
Fisk began no further from home than Belfast, but in 1976 he arrived in Beirut, which became his permanent home base. He’s covered invasions, insurrections, and all kinds of catastrophes, always taking what he calls “the side of those who suffer.” This stance has engendered many conflicts with supporters of the region’s dominant powers, as well as with editors at several British newspapers. Fisk currently writes for the now online-only Independent.
The documentary’s title, which echoes that of Jafar Panahi’s This Is Not a Film, suggests an attempt to deconstruct cinematic storytelling. But it’s Fisk who’s the iconoclast here, as Chang has crafted a conventional blend of new and archival footage, without any experimental narrative strategies. Unlike his earlier Up the Yangtze, which benefited from a narrower focus and compressed timeline, This Is Not a Movie isn’t especially shapely or propulsive.
The two things that give this documentary its power and provocativeness are intellectual rather than dramatic: Fisk’s work, and his ideas. Using digital minicams, Chang and his crew follow the journalist through Syria, Beirut, and the West Bank. There’s also a foray to Serbia and Bosnia, where Fisk tries to determine how European weapons were routed to the Syrian bloodbath, which he calls “the worst reported war in the Middle East.”
“If you don’t go to the scene,” Fisk says, “you can’t get near the truth of it.” And that’s the essence of his mission, which is as moral as it is historical: “So no one can say, ‘This didn’t happen.’ So no one can say, ‘We didn’t know. No one told us.’” Although he’s lived in Beirut most of his life, Fisk is no modern-day Lawrence of Arabia. In his unironed shirts and rumpled pants, he looks as if he’s dressed to putter in the garden at the Irish cottage he says he might have chosen as his retirement home. He admits to speaking only “a bit” of Arabic. (The film shows Fisk’s reliance on translators and guides but doesn’t explain where he gets them, as Chang is more interested in Fisk’s life and ideas than the practicalities of his work.)
Fisk’s focus on the victims of Middle Eastern power plays has made him some enemies. A defining moment in his career was the massacre of Palestinian refugees at the Sabra and Shatilas camps, carried out by Lebanese Christians but facilitated by Israeli forces. (It’s the only event that ever gave him nightmares, he says.) He travels with Amira Haas, an Israeli journalist he admires, to survey the West Bank areas sundered by Israel’s separation wall and to visit what Fink terms Israeli “colonies.” Inevitably, the reporter has been denounced as an anti-Semite, notably by Alan Dershowitz in a 2001 audio debate excerpted in the film.
That moment aside, Chang devotes little time to Fisk’s detractors. Notably, it doesn’t challenge his claim that there was no chemical attack on Douma, Syria, in 2018. Early reports may have been overstated, but few observers support Fisk’s account of the incident. Even a reporter who prides himself on getting as close to the story as possible can make a mistake. But Chang makes a strong case that Fisk’s approach is more reliable than that of journalists whose method privileges deflection and distortion. Indeed, what Fisk has to say about that should interest newspaper readers who never turn—or click—to the foreign coverage.
Noting that war is “not a football match,” Fisk rejects mainstream journalism’s standard operating procedure, which he describes as, “First you tell the truth. Then you get someone to deny it.” In the fourth year of Donald Trump’s presidency, Fisk’s rebuff of journalistic “balance” could hardly be more pertinent. Fisk may be out of sync with his profession, but Chang’s documentary adroitly demonstrates that the septuagenarian is still motivated as much by the boyish curiosity that drew him to journalism. Dismissing the idea of that cottage in Ireland, Fisk says, “I still want to know what happens next.”
Director: Yung Chang Screenwriter: Yung Chang, Nelofer Pazira Distributor: KimStim Running Time: 106 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The 75 Best Horror Movies of the 21st Century
These are the films from this millennium that have most shocked us by plumbing our deepest primordial terrors.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors, to incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. Budd Wilkins
Editor’s Note: This entry was originally published on October 10, 2018.
75. They Came Back (2004)
They Came Back is a triumph of internal horror, and unlike M. Night Shyamalan’s similarly moody freak-out The Sixth Sense, Robin Campillo’s vision of the dead sharing the same space as the living isn’t predicated on a gimmicky reduction of human faith. Campillo is more upfront than Shyamalan—it’s more or less understood that the presence of the living dead in his film is likely metaphoric—and he actually seems willing to plumb the moral oblivion created by the collision of its two worlds. Though the fear that the film’s walking dead can turn violent at any second is completely unjustified, the writer-director allows this paranoia to reflect the feelings of loss, disassociation, and hopelessness that cripple the living. It’s rather amazing how far the film is able to coast on its uniquely fascinating premise, even if it isn’t much of a stretch for its director: Campillo co-authored Laurent Cantet’s incredible Time Out, a different kind of zombie film about the deadening effects of too much work on the human psyche, and They Came Back is almost as impressive in its concern with the existential relationship between the physical and non-physical world. Ed Gonzalez
74. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager
73. The Monster (2016)
In The Strangers, Bryan Bertino exhibited a masterfully lush style that owed quite a bit to the elegant camera pirouettes of John Carpenter. Here, the filmmaker utilizes his command of medium for more individualized purposes. By the time that The Monster reveals itself to be a horror film, we’re so engrossed in Kathy (Zoe Kazan) and Lizzy’s (Ella Ballentine) pain that the arrival of the titular menace strikes us as an authentic violation of normality, rather than as a ghoul arriving on demand per the dictates of the screenplay. The film has an eerily WTF arbitrariness that should be the domain of more films in the genre. Chuck Bowen
72. Cam (2018)
When Wilhelm Reich developed the concept of “sex economy” in 1931, he had in mind something like the way societal expectations or advertising may compel someone toward compulsory masturbation. Almost 90 years later, compulsion is but one of an array of factors informing Cam, Daniel Goldhaber’s lithely satirical and startling take on the present state of online sex work. Based on screenwriter Isa Mazzei’s own experiences as a cam model, the film is neither plainly sex positive nor outright cautionary in its depiction of Alice (Madeline Brewer), an up-and-coming streamer whose account is hacked and stolen by someone appearing to be her doppelgänger. Even as Cam gives new meaning to “ghosting” when Alice watches “herself” online, the film’s strengths come from an intimate familiarity with the anxieties that accompany a life predicated on thriving in a gig economy still owned and operated by impenetrable customer service mechanisms and corporate channels of older, sweaty white men. Cam is also one of the first American films to grapple with the realities of being doxed to family and friends, further demonstrating its primary acumen as a check on the social pulse of a particular strain of U.S. conservatism that continues to think about and patrol sex work, and those who participate in it, in even pre-Reichian terms. Clayton Dillard
71. The House That Jack Built (2018)
Like Bob Dylan in D.A. Pennebaker’s 1967 documentary Dont Look Back, Matt Dillon’s serial killer in Lars von Trier’s The House That Jack Built flashes cue cards to the camera while standing in an alleyway. If Dylan’s narcissism, and Pennebaker’s giddiness to capture it, suggested a cultural turn toward celebrity worship, then Dillon’s psychopath is the bizarre complement. He’s neurotic, self-obsessed, and as devoted to mythologizing his own “body of work” as he is psychologically impenetrable and unknowable. A house built of corpses is both a provocation and an invocation of documentary footage taken from Auschwitz and Katyn. It’s also yet another allusion, this time to Alain Resnais and Dušan Makavejev, who are perhaps the two European filmmakers most devoted to reckoning with manmade catastrophe through montage and the carnivalesque, which are von Trier’s chosen aesthetic modes here. Despite having nothing fashionable in either its politics or its preoccupation with the egotistical artist, The House That Jack Built is one of the most forward-thinking films of 2018 for how it proposes an unruly resurrection of the past, and one’s past self, in order to grapple with its significance. Dillard
70. The Blackcoat’s Daughter (2015)
The Blackcoat’s Daughter has a sad, macabre integrity. Kiernan Shipka, Lucy Boynton, Emma Roberts, Lauren Holly, and James Remar are poignant in their minimalist roles, and writer-director Oz Perkins arranges their characters in a cleverly constructed narrative prism that simultaneously dramatizes violence and its aftermath in an endless chain reaction of perpetual cause and effect. And the carnage, when it arrives, is staged with an aura of guttural bitterness that refuses to give gore-hounds their jollies, elaborating, instead, on the desolation of the characters committing the acts. When the demons appear in the film, and in terrifyingly fleeting glimpses, Perkins understands them to spring from the deepest chasms of human despair. Bowen
69. Unsane (2018)
In 1959, Georges Franju’s masterpiece Head Against the Wall used a man’s confinement at a sanitarium as an analogy for the listlessness of French youth—a generation old enough to remember the degradations and traumas of World War II but now confronted with the promise of a passive, consumer-driven middle-class existence. Steven Soderbergh’s down and dirty Unsane functions in a similar way, using the experience of institutionalization to probe the mores around mental health in a privatization-mad America. Few if any Hollywood-adjacent filmmakers have put as much brain power into making the digital revolution work for them as Soderbergh has, and even Unsane’s most ridiculous moments coast on the sheer energy of aesthetic gamesmanship. Shooting on an iPhone 7, the filmmaker continues finding economical solutions in a pinch. Soderbergh remains a major artist at the peak of his powers, fascinated by the textures of the contemporary world—the actual one, not the one we usually pay to see at the movies. Even if he’s just flexing a new mode of production, the result is still 98 minutes of shredding, analeptic cinema. Steve Macfarlane
68. Suspiria (2018)
Luca Guadagnino knew that a successful remake of Dario Argento’s Suspiria would need, at the very least, to take the material in a completely different direction. And he winkingly acknowledges that belief in an early scene from his remake when Dr. Josef Klemperer (Tilda Swinton, err, Lutz Ebersdorf) underlines the word “simulacrum” in a notebook. The new Suspiria is, especially in visual terms, anything but a simulacrum, as its palette is more reminiscent of Rainer Werner Fassbinder and Walerian Borowczyk’s films than Argento’s neon-tinged original. Guadagnino’s remake is, above all, a film about the terror that lingers in a European city long after its been blitzed by various catastrophes. Guadagnino uses Argento’s original as a launching pad for interrogating how the old, whether in dance or politics, often corrupts the new. Heady though it is, the film also more than delivers the genre goods. It strikes a delicate aesthetic balance between hysteria and control, most evident in an unforgettable scene in which Susie (Dakota Johnson) dances for Madame Blanc (Swinton), much to the bone-breaking detriment of the Markos Dance Academy’s former star. Dillard
67. November (2017)
In André Breton’s writings on surrealism, he envisions, and prescribes, a mode of fairy tale for adults rooted in juxtapositions so poetic and strange that they seem only possible in dreams. Or in the work of Rainer Sarnet, who crafts the uncanniest of fables in November. Based on a novel by Andrus Kivirähk, this gorgeously shot film is an intrepid portrait of an Estonian village inhabited by greedy old men, wise toothless hags, ghostly lovers, and anthropomorphic creatures made out of human hair and metal coils. November respects the logic and temporality of the unconscious. As such, it’s difficult to tell if the story takes place in medieval times or some dystopian future. Its impenetrable storylines take shape like most of its dialogue, bearing the enigmatic sparseness of poetic stanzas or ancient spells. There’s more to be enjoyed if one gets lost in the bewildering rhythm between eerie sounds and the black-and-white imagery, instead of trying to detangle the various strands of the surreal narrative. Diego Semerene
66. Train to Busan (2016)
When divorced of message-mongering, the film’s scare tactics are among the most distinctive that the zombie canon has ever seen. The zombies here are rabid, fast-moving ghoulies that, as Train to Busan’s protagonists discover, are attracted to loud sounds and only attack what they can actually see. This realization becomes the foundation for a series of taut set pieces during which the story’s motley crew of survivors manipulate their way past zombies with the aid of cellphones and bats and the numerous tunnels through which the train must travel. The genre crosspollination for which so many South Korean thrillers have come to be known for is most evident in these scenes (as in the survivors crawling across one train car’s overhead luggage area), which blend together the tropes of survivor-horror and disaster films, as well as suggest the mechanics of puzzle-platformer games. Gonzalez
65. In Fabric (2019)
Peter Strickland’s films are fetish objects that rue the perils of fetishism. The British filmmaker’s characters are walled off from others, channeling their longing into various acts of aestheticism, which parallels his own obsession with emulating the stylistics of the giallo, softcore pornography, and classic European chamber dramas. In Fabric finds Strickland doubling down on these qualities, mounting a gorgeous and lonely horror film that expresses emotion via a series of increasingly abstract motifs. Strickland allows his dreamy atmosphere to take over the film, as the characters are eaten alive by their hungers and uncertainties, though this free-floating reverie has a moralistic streak. Bowen
64. 28 Weeks Later (2007)
28 Weeks Later rolls in like a poisonous dust cloud of nihilism. The everyman hero this time around is Don (Robert Carlyle), who thinks he and his wife (Catherine McCormack) are safe in their wee rural cottage when the rage virus transforms most of mainland Britain into shrieking, blood-vomiting zombies that sprint head-on at their victims. 28 Days Later is a tough and uncompromising horror film, but it’s all sunshine and laughter in comparison to the sequel. The thesis of 28 Weeks Later is that the War on Terror is ultimately a self-destructive one for all concerned, from the bullying authority figures to the demoralized combat soldiers to the fractured family units. Director Juan Carlos Fresnadillo seems to place his empathy with the recently infected. Much like Philip Kaufman’s remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, there’s an understanding for what it means to be human—and the magic that is lost when that humanity is stripped away. Jeremiah Kipp
63. 1922 (2017)
In 1922, Wilfred James (Thomas Jane) initially scans as a broadly brutish characterization given by an actor looking to disrupt his handsomely aloof image, following a cinematic tradition of expressively filthy, monosyllabic and flamboyantly antisocial characters such as Daniel Plainview and Karl Childers. Though Jane’s dramatization of rage is haunting and shrewdly comical in its overt and ultimately moving über-manliness. The casual violence of Wilfred’s physicality is subtly calibrated, particularly the tension in his muscled back as he drinks lemonade on the porch after a hard day of murder. Complementing Jane’s portrait of coiled wrath, Molly Parker physicalizes the fear that informs every minute wrinkle of Arlette’s relationship with her husband, which the character attempts to paper over with bravado, inadvertently sealing her doom. Arlette is one of countless women who’re damned if they do and if they don’t, yet somehow the men are able to rationalize themselves as the victims. 1922 informs Stephen King’s pulp feminism with primordial, biblically ugly force. Bowen
62. Them (2006)
Hoody-clad sadists attack a couple, alone in their country home. That’s all the setup that co-writers/directors David Moreau and Xavier Palud need to dredge up some uniquely discomfiting chills. You won’t be able to shake Them is primarily set in seems to grow bigger with each new hole the film’s villains tear out of. To get the maximum effect, be sure to watch this one at night; just don’t watch it alone. Simon Abrams
61. Black Death (2010)
Grim aesthetics and an even grimmer worldview define Black Death, in which ardent piousness and defiant paganism both prove paths toward violence, hypocrisy, and hell. Christopher Smith’s 14th-century period piece exudes an oppressive sense of physical, spiritual, and atmospheric weight, with grimy doom hanging in the air like the fog enshrouding its dense forests. His story concerns a gang of thugs, torturers, and killers led by Ulric (Sean Bean), a devout soldier commissioned by the church to visit the lone, remote town in the land not afflicted by a fatal pestilence, where it’s suspected a necromancer is raising the dead. Dario Poloni’s austere script charts the crew’s journey into a misty netherworld where the viciousness of man seems constantly matched by divine cruelty, even as the role of God’s hand—in the pestilence, and in the personal affairs of individuals—remains throughout tantalizingly oblique. Schager
60. The Neon Demon (2016)
Nicolas Winding Refn puts his monogram on his film’s title card. So did D.W. Griffith. The Neon Demon is about narcissism as a form of artistry and, girl, is it ever. Boasting color that would make Mario Bava blush and proffering hilariously conceited exchanges that oscillate between farce and bone-dry awkwardness, each successive scene loudly announces Refn’s turn of the screw. Refn finds the fabric of hidden cultural demons, and not the sorts of spirits that can be dismissed by an exorcist. Check the wallpaper behind Gigi (Bella Heathcote) after she barfs up an eyeball; it’s covered in swastikas. The appropriative and racist legacies of Los Angeles and Europe find women as only food or sex while in the crosshairs of these wide-eyed, well-dressed hounds. The lure of lights, the bass of electro, the will to power, the kino eye—what hath this delight in pleasure and knowledge wrought? Dillard
59. The Hole in the Ground (2019)
Quite a bit of the fun of The Hole in the Ground resides in guessing how Lee Cronin’s shopworn signifiers fit together, as he offers a smorgasbord of portentous elements that include a crone by the roadside, the aforementioned hole and the woods, a pointed reference to Sarah’s (Seána Kerslake) medication, and Chris’s (James Quinn Markey) newfound sense of inhuman formality. There’s also, of course, a past atrocity that haunts Sarah and Chris’s new residence. Yet the film gradually becomes something more than a mixtape of horror gimmicks, as it homes in on a frightening real-world subtext. Chris’s changing behaviors, which include chillingly crawling on the floor of his room like an animal and eating a large spider, are rooted in the distance that comes between Sarah and Chris after they leave Sarah’s abusive husband. There’s an unspoken sense that Sarah’s arising revulsion with her son may be rooted in how he reminds her of his father, and there’s a particularly moving scene where we see Sarah’s disgust with Chris as he eats spaghetti, which Cronin frames in a cruelly unflattering close-up. Bowen
58. Neighboring Sounds (2012)
Of course this upstairs-downstairs portraiture plays out with the tenor of horror. The class war is an inexhaustible source of terror—particular here, in Recife, Brazil, an affluent coastal town whose middle-class comforts are quite literally built up and around its history of poverty and oppression. Less social critique than abstract deconstruction, Kleber Mendonca Filho’s Neighboring Sounds is very much about the power of the cinema not to deliver, but to portend, and to that end its gears are always turning. Its sublime sound design, emerging at the intersection of ambient noise and musique concrete, offers a case study for how to suggest the existence of horrors we never see. Filho understands that an atmosphere of palpable dread sustains tension better than more sensational explication, and his commitment to withholding is, without exaggeration, worthy of Hitchcock. That it more or less forgoes the spectacle of an anticipated resolution is a necessary consequence of its methods; in other words, for Filho, process rather than payoff is the point. As Recife’s idle rich flaunt their privilege as lowly laborers circle them like sharks, conflict seems a guarantee. But the bubble of complacency in which these characters live doesn’t need to be punctured by violence. The status quo is damning enough. Calum Marsh
57. The Invitation (2015)
The Invitation filters each sinister development through Will’s (Logan Marshall-Green) unreliable perspective, to the point that one friend’s failure to turn up at a lavish dinner, or another’s precipitous departure, appear as if submerged, changing with each shift in the emotional current. Returning to the rambling house where he and Eden once lived for the first time since the death of their son, Will finds himself inundated anew by his heartache, and the film, which otherwise hews to crisp, clean realism, is run through with these painful stabs of memory. Eden slashes her wrists in the kitchen sink, the sounds of children playing emanate from the empty yard, inane talk of the Internet’s funny cats and penguins becomes white noise against Will’s screaming: The question of whether or not to trust his sense of foreboding is perhaps not so open as director Karyn Kusama and company might wish, but against the terrors of continuing on after losing a child, the issue of narrative suspense is almost immaterial. Matt Brennan
56. Mulholland Drive (2001)
David Lynch’s meta noir Mulholland Drive literalizes the theory of surrealism as perpetual dream state. Told as it is using a highly symbolic, ravishingly engorged language of dreams, this bloody valentine to Los Angeles naturally leaves one feeling groggy, confused, looking forward and back, hankering to pass again through its serpentine, slithery hall of mirrors until all its secrets have been unpacked. Whether Mulholland Drive anticipated the YouTube Age we live in (and which Inland Empire’s digital punk poetics perfectly embody) is up for debate, but there’s no doubt that this movie-movie will continue to haunt us long after Lynch has moved on to shooting pictures using the tools of whatever new film medium awaits us—tools that he will no doubt have helped to revolutionize. Gonzalez
55. Hereditary (2018)
The first half of Hereditary establishes Annie’s (Toni Collette) grief and decades-long mental illness to set up the arrival of Joan (Ann Dowd), a Caligari-like figure who preys upon Annie’s vulnerability. Although Joan seems like an honest and empathetic woman, she’s actually a deceitful minion of Paimon, an avaricious king whom Annie accidentally helps to conjure from the dead. Hereditary is chock-full of citations to other classic horror films (most notably Rosemary’s Baby and The Shining) that take as their themes the manipulation of women as mothers and wives. When Annie, deep in the haze of misbegotten conviction, tells her son, “I’m the only one who can fix this,” she’s trying to rectify the sense of maternal guilt she feels for her daughter’s death. She’s also invoking Donald Trump’s claim from a July 2016 rally, when he said in reference to law and order: “I alone can fix it.” Fallen prey to the circumstances of her own deception, Annie speaks the self-defeating logic inherited from her manipulator. Dillard
54. Sinister (2012)
Scott Derrickson’s Sinister isn’t a period piece, but by directing its attention backward it brackets its chosen tech-horror particulars as products of a bygone era—in this case considerably further back than the period of tube TVs and quarter-inch tapes to which this subgenre of horror so often belongs. Much like Ringu, Sinister concerns a cursed film whose audience dies after exposure to it, but here the curse is disseminated not by clunky videotape, but by a box of 8mm films. The projector, more than simply outmoded, is regarded here as practically archaic, and as with Berberian Sound Studio and its reel-to-reel fetishism, Sinister makes quite a show of the mechanics of the machine, soaking in the localized details and milking them for their weighty physicality. Even the format’s deficiencies, from the rickety hum of sprockets to the instability of the frame, are savored by what seems like a nostalgic impulse—a fondness for the old-fashioned that even transforms the rough, granular quality of the haunted films themselves into something like pointillist paintings of the macabre. Marsh
53. Maniac (2012)
Made in collaboration with Alexandre Aja and Grégory Levasseur, and with the sort of fearless artistic freedom often allowed by European financing, Franck Khalfoun’s Maniac begins with a psychopath’s synth-tastically scored stalking of a party girl back to her apartment, outside which he cuts her frightened scream short by driving a knife up into her head through her jaw. The film deceptively delights in capturing the mood of an exploitation cheapie before latching onto and running with the conceit only halfheartedly employed by William Lustig in the 1980 original, framing the titular maniac’s killing spree—this time set in Los Angeles—almost entirely from his point of view. A gimmick, yes, but more than just a means of superficially keying us into the psyche of the main character, Frank, an antique mannequin salesman played memorably by a minimally seen Elijah Wood. As in Rob Zombie’s Halloween II, this approach becomes a provocative means of sympathizing with the devil. Gonzalez
52. Depraved (2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Steven Scaife
51. Us (2019)
Jordan Peele’s Us suggests C.H.U.D. for the Trump era. Even though it’s not as tidily satisfying as Get Out, it’s both darker and more ambitious, and broader in its themes. This film’s African-American characters also come under assault not in the inner cities of the white imagination, but in supposedly safer upper-class suburban spaces. But Us also moves past such racial themes. The shadow vengeance meted upon the Wilsons is in fact a plague, and it’s one that touches every family in Peele’s film. In Us, Peele is less concerned with blackness than he is economics, as the howling, homicidal doubles that torment the Wilsons represent an avenging under class. “What are you people?” Gabe (Winston Duke) asks when the terror begins. “We’re Americans!” his wife’s double (Lupita Nyong’o) hisses. It’s tempting to read these Americans as the embittered Trump base, rising up to destroy the false idyll that was the comfort—for some, at least—of the American status quo. Henry Stewart
Review: Honest Thief Is a Dried-Out Rehash of the Liam Neeson Actioner
The repetitious plot is more ritual than text as we watch yet another Liam Neeson avenger defy the will of younger, unscrupulous men.1
For more than a decade now, Liam Neeson has been primarily identified with the furrowed brows and flying elbows of men with particular sets of skills. Last year, Hans Petter Moland’s Cold Pursuit, with tongue firmly in cheek, seemed to suggest that Neeson’s propensity for playing brooding middle-aged avengers had reached a point of self-parody—á la Arnold Schwarzenegger in James Cameron’s True Lies. But director Mark Williams’s Honest Thief sees Neeson back in earnest “I’ll catch up to those men who wrecked my life” mode—á la Schwarzenegger in Andrew Davis’s Collateral Damage.
Williams’s action thriller casts Neeson’s as unassuming, denim-clad nice guy Tom Dolan, who has led a secret life as a bank robber known by the press-appointed sobriquet “the in and out bandit.” It’s a moniker ripe for riffs about hamburgers or intercourse, but Honest Thief is too stiff—certainly not too sophisticated—a film for wordplay spicier than the trite paradox in its title. Tom’s defining characteristic consists of his absolute lack of irony; in contrast to the jaded men of the Boston F.B.I. department who end up pursuing him, he’s the last bastion of guileless masculine honor. “She means more to me than all the dollar bills in the world,” Neeson utters in his gravelly baritone at one point, referring to the woman, Annie Wilkins (Kate Walsh), who has inspired him to leave his life of crime behind.
If the film doesn’t call up such clichés to mock them, it also doesn’t seem wholly unaware of them. Rather, and perhaps more dangerously, there’s an assertiveness to the way it rehashes corny lines and predictable beats, as if it’s saying that the old clichés—about men and women, about good guys, bad guys, and just deserts—are simply what works, and therefore what’s true. On the other end of the phone call when Tom proclaims the relative worth of his girlfriend is Special Agent Sam Baker (Robert Patrick), who Tom is attempting to turn himself in to, in exchange for a plea bargain. Having received many confessions from individuals claiming to be the bandit, Baker and his recently divorced schlub of a partner, Agent Meyers (Jeffrey Donovan), are slow to act on Tom’s call, delegating the task of conducting an initial interview with the man to two subordinates, Agents Hall (Anthony Ramos) and Nivens (Jai Courtney).
Hall and Nivens, being morally directionless men of a younger generation rather than the upright boomers represented by Tom, Baker, and even the disaffected (but soon reformed) Meyers, scam Tom as soon as they realize he’s the real deal. To verify to Hall and Nivens that he is who he says he is, and trusting in them as representatives of authority, Tom gives them the keys to the storage unit that houses the cash he’s stolen over the years. In a turn that suggests that Williams and co-screenwriter Steve Allrich failed to Google “civil asset forfeiture” during their research for the script, Hall and Nivens decide that they need to lie to their bosses and murder Tom in order to steal his misbegotten money.
Naturally, they flub the murder part of their plan, and Tom ends up on the run, with his irrationally loyal girlfriend accompanying him on car chases through the mysteriously empty streets of Boston. Emptiness more or less sums up Honest Thief’s entire aesthetic. It’s an effect that at first seems unintentional. But then, the film’s interiors are so bare that at times they almost resemble Robert Bresson’s alienated cinematic spaces; its urban exteriors are so strangely devoid of life that their deadness recalls midcentury existentialism, as if this were Taken by Beckett. A rushed and cartoonish final act, though, involving cops colluding in the uncontrolled detonation of parts of suburban Boston puts rest to such reveries.
In any case, the truth of the matter—that the film is a pared-down, dried-out rehash of the half-dozen Neeson vehicles that preceded it—seems almost beside the point. The repetitious plot is more ritual than text as we watch yet another of the actor’s characters defy the will of younger, unscrupulous men, surprising them with hand-to-hand skills honed by Marine training, bashing his stolen car into theirs when flight would have been the safer choice. Taken with all the other iterations of this story, Honest Thief isn’t about Tom, but about Neeson as America’s conservative Dad and his Sisyphean routine of grumbling, growling, and raging at a world in which he no longer seems to belong, and then inevitably doing it all over.
Cast: Liam Neeson, Kate Walsh, Jeffrey Donovan, Jai Courtney, Anthony Ramos, Robert Patrick, Jasmine Cephas Jones Director: Mark Williams Screenwriter: Steve Allrich, Mark Williams Distributor: Open Road Films Running Time: 99 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2020
Interview: Cooper Raiff Talks Shithouse, Nostalgia, and Being There for Others
The filmmaker discusses how Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience.
“Bet you won’t click on this link and then email me,” read the tweet from college student Cooper Raiff to indie film maven Jay Duplass that began the journey of Shithouse. Raiff had directed and shot a film about a homesick freshman and a savvy RA called Madeline & Cooper over spring break with $300, two friends, and stolen equipment from his college. Duplass responded, both emotionally to the film and literally to the message, and helped mentor as well as support Raiff through making a more professionalized iteration of the film linked to in the fateful tweet. That new film, Shithouse, won Raiff the grand jury prize at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival at just 23 years old.
Tempting as it might be to ascribe a master plan to Raiff’s rise, the Shithouse multihyphenate—actor, writer, director, editor—evinces no evidence of being a calculating wunderkind. Raiff remains as affable and easygoing as his film, a leisurely but lofty college-set tale of two young people coming to terms with the personal baggage that weighs on them. Madeline and Cooper from the original scrappy feature become Maggie (Dylan Gelula) and Alex (Raiff), who navigate similar emotional terrain but within a larger personal and social framework that encompasses fellow students as well as Alex’s family at home in Dallas.
Shithouse recalls the best of Richard Linklater, not only because Raiff already proves his adeptness at mastering the director’s trademark “walk and talk” two-shots. He also shares an appreciation the unique window provided by the collegiate experience to focus on self-actualization. Raiff’s film recognizes the ability for extended conversations to soften characters’ emotional guards and expose real vulnerabilities, and it’s all conveyed with a distinctively Texan sense of casualness and compassion.
I spoke with Raiff over Zoom the week prior to Shithouse opening in select theaters and on demand, a scale of release that thrilled him but by no means felt inevitable. Our wide-ranging conversation covered why he doesn’t think about cinematography when envisioning a film, how writing makes him a better person, and where he wishes he’d been more precious in editing his personal but not autobiographical character. I couldn’t resist the opportunity to start our time by raising a personal connection: Raiff and I both attended small high schools in Texas that played against each other in the same athletic conference. Recognizing that bit of shared kinship led to Raiff revealing a number of ways in which Shithouse reflects the specifics of a certain life experience in addition to the story’s broader applicability.
Alex in the movie is wearing a Greenhill Wolves sweatshirt. But if I recall, the real Greenhill is the Hornets. I’m betting that Greenhill didn’t lend you the mascot?
No, I just wanted to have the stuffed wolf. I had this thing where I wanted it to be Alex’s dad, but for it to be a wolf dad. I really cared about it being a wolf, but it’s really funny because a lot of people think it’s a dog, so it doesn’t even matter. I also wanted it to tie back to high school. I wanted it to have that mascot. I think, at the end of day, I could’ve gotten permission, but I didn’t have the time to ask. I made a sweatshirt instead and made it so that if I said something…there’s actually a scene where I talk about Greenhill, and not that I shit on it. I say really nice things about it, but I just didn’t want any kind of legal thing to get in the way.
In terms of developing a passion for film or movies. I’ve heard you say that you don’t consider yourself a filmmaker. If watching movies wasn’t pushing you into making them, how were they acting on you and influencing you?
When I was directing for the first time, I realized just how deep into my bones movies are. I don’t watch a ton of them. I’ll also turn a lot of them off because I just know when one isn’t going to land with me. But when they do, I can’t stop thinking about them. It wasn’t a stretch to figure out how I was going to film Shithouse, because even if I direct a ton of movies moving forward, I like coming from this place of always just caring about these characters and themes that are coming from these characters. Where I come from is always: I’m obsessed with these two people, and I want to write scenes where these two people are gonna have the most fun. At the end of the day, the most important things to me are what their personalities say about life. The way that Maggie and Alex are such perfect foils for each other, I think, says something pretty universal about the way that two different people look at the way we relate to each other and our interconnectedness.
At what point did you did you know that the story that you were working on would have resonance for other people?
Like, a couple months after SXSW when more people started watching it. I think I knew that it was universal, but I didn’t know if I communicated that well enough. You never know until people see it. But I knew that I would love it. I knew that my family members and my ex-girlfriends would love it. On set, being in the scenes and watching Dylan play Maggie, I just knew that all the scenes were working so well, and it had the magic that I wanted. It felt special in the way that I wanted it to feel special. I knew that I was going to always love the movie. But it’s so small and quiet, so I didn’t know how many people were gonna really meet it. Because, and here’s the thing: Shithouse requires you to meet it where it is. It’s a movie that you have to really go there for it in a way. Most great movies are just there, like you don’t have to work hard to immerse yourself in it. And Shithouse is very comfortable with not being seen by a lot of people, it just comes across that way. I think it’s been so nice hearing that more than 10 people went there, enjoyed it and felt it the whole way through.
As someone who’s not all that different from Alex, I didn’t feel like I had to travel far. It was very much kind of like, “How dare you make this biopic of my life freshman year?”
Yeah, but even then, because Alex is such a specific character that I didn’t know how relatable he would be. Because Alex is myself stripped away a ton. I have, way deep down, this really huge, massive caring bone in my body. I just want to love and like taking care of people. I think realizing that people are relating to that part of Alex is awesome, and it feels really cool.
Are you someone who needs to parse the events of your life through art, writing, or creating something to feel some sense of closure or finality in the experiencing of it?
No, I never thought of this movie as cathartic while writing it. Honestly, when I was acting in it, it was pretty cathartic because there were certain scenes where I had never really gone there. I don’t think of my writing as therapy in that way. But I will say that as a writer—I think I realized this recently because I’ve been writing a ton again—it does make me a better person. Naturally, obviously, because it’s about trying to understand and have empathy for people. I don’t go to a script saying, “I have to figure this shit out.” But I am realizing that it does inform my life in the biggest way, where I didn’t think that before. I thought it was just something that I was doing and meant a lot to me, but it was a separate thing. I think it really informs who I am because I’m spending all day just thinking about other people and getting their interior lives. I think that’s who I am is someone who just moves about that way.
How did movies both prepare and fail you for college? Movies set at school, and college in particular, don’t really make a ton of space for stories like this about someone who’s feeling very alone and isolated.
I haven’t really seen a lot of college movies, honestly, but I’ve seen many movies that do little scenes from college. It’s always just written from a place of nostalgia. I think writers see college as a playground for them to write whatever they want. But, for me, when I knew I was gonna make a movie about college, there was really only one thing that I could write about, and it was the pain of leaving home and growing up. Just the fact that no one prepares you for how hard it is to fall asleep that first night under a new ceiling. Also, the pain of your parents dropping you off and driving away and leaving you there, it’s just horrendous.
But I think movies always fail people because they’re trying to be good instead of trying to say something. I’m not even saying entertaining, because I want everything to be entertaining, but I wanted to communicate something while being as watchable and entertaining as possible.
Even though the film feels very loose, it’s my understanding that Shithouse is highly scripted. How do you write for college students? Because, on the one hand, sometimes the way they talk seems very on the nose. But, then again, they’re all kind of taking their cues from movies or the idea of what it means to be in college.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. So, Alex is very much based on me, Maggie’s very much based on someone I’m with right now. Her name is Madeline, and the movie’s based on our relationship, so I know exactly how she talks. I know exactly what she’s gonna say, always. My mom, even more so. The roommate was a combination of every single guy friendship that I’ve ever had. I just picture them talking. I write a lot of like’s, and I write a lot of um’s. But with the script, I always tell the actors that they can rewrite whatever they want to rewrite. I never want something to sound false or feel uncomfortable coming out of their mouth. I don’t say, “You have to say the like right here, or you have to say the um right here,” but the like’s and the um’s in a line will just signal to the actor that it’s not as well thought out. He doesn’t exactly know what he’s saying here. That’s why there’s a lot of like’s and um’s. I always want my actors to know that I’m not precious about any of the lines or anything. I just wanted to get across that there’s gonna probably be some like’s and um’s in this one this big line.
As actor, director, and editor of Shithouse, how do you keep yourself from getting too precious in your performance? I was recently talking with Kirsten Johnson, the director who did Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead…
[eyes light up] I am obsessed! If you look on my Facebook page, a still from Cameraperson is my cover photo. I’m obsessed with that movie.
So good! She mentioned an exercise she does with her students at NYU. She will have them film each other talking about their fears about their thesis project and then edit both themselves and the other person in the conversation. She said, inevitably, that the edit of the other person is so much more interesting because they can just see something in these little moments. The version of themselves they present is so sanitized or watered down that they become boring. I caught so many little moments of Alex in Shithouse that made me think you really didn’t fall into that same trap.
It’s really tricky because I think there’s a story that the character is so close to me, but it’s really not. I don’t feel like Alex at all. I mean, obviously, that’s a slippery slope. I did have another editor who came on to make sure I was seeing everything. But so many people have talked about not having another perspective. And because I think there’s this thing where people think there’s four different movies: the movie that’s written, the movie that’s on the set, the edited movie, and the movie that the audience receives. And I think being in charge of all the things really collapsed it in a way that I really liked. Even with the editor, I wasn’t just coming in and saying, “Hey, do whatever you want.” I was trying to communicate, “Hey, this is exactly what I want. I want you to help me out with getting this certain thing and this certain quality.” It didn’t feel like the barrier that I think a lot of people think it was.
To answer that specific question about not being precious with the character, I always did feel like I was acting as Alex. If I could go back, I think I probably would have been more precious. Just the response that people are giving, it seems like they just think it’s me. If I had known that’s what would have happened…I just didn’t think this movie would have a big audience at all. And not that it does, but I thought it was just going to be my friends and family who all know that I’m certainly not so much like Alex. But experiencing so many people kind of even just talking about it in terms of “this is the filmmaker,” it’s like, “No, I’m not writing emotional propaganda!” I did write a character, and I drew upon my life in a major way as everyone does writing something personal and original. But I wasn’t precious with it at all.
Throughout Shithouse, a lot of the characters opine about the nature and meaning of college. I don’t want to assume that the characters speak for you, but did thinking through these questions give you any clarity on the questions?
Yeah, I mean, I still don’t really know what the thesis of college is, but I know the arguments. I think what I wanted to say about college was that it’s the first time for me without a safety net. I was so dependent on my family members, and they were so rock solid that I got to college and felt like I was without oxygen for the first time. And then you have Maggie, who’s been without a safety net for a long time. That’s just how she was raised. I think that’s why she’s crushing college. But I think what I wanted to say was that going to your second home, it’s kind of the most selfish time of your life. You’re really trying to figure out who you are separate from the home that you were raised in for so long.
But the other thing I wanted to say is, yes, I think we should be looking out for each other, and I talk about that so much in Shithouse. I hope people get that in order to take care of people and look out for each other, you have to first take care of yourself. Figure out your shit, make your bed, take responsibility for your actions in a way that you’re moving or not moving. I think Maggie’s line is, “Just because your life’s shitty doesn’t mean you can make other people feel like their life is shitty.” Alex is so harsh about the way that people are just trying to survive because he’s not doing a good job of surviving. But he thinks, “Oh, everyone should be having this hard time, you just need me to help you out.” Where it’s like, “No, no, I don’t need you.” But then there’s like that whole thing where, yeah, you do. You can’t not depend on people.
I remember an older friend of mine told me in my first year at school, “I think your biggest problem is that you are over college and you are already a freshman.” But at the same time, I was still 19 and immature. Holding those two thoughts in your head about how equipped you are to handle the experience is definitely challenging, and I think it is a very unique struggle that Alex goes through.
Have you seen the movie Liberal Arts?
I have, but it’s been a long time.
There’s a line in there where [Elizabeth Olsen’s character] is talking about how she can see herself in the future, and she feels like a rough draft version of herself. But she has the wisdom to know that she’s not there. You just have to live through certain things and experience certain things—and also experience certain pains—in order to get there. I think the people that don’t have that wisdom, it’s not a bad thing. They’re just turning on that part of their brain because sometimes it’s not useful to have that knowledge too soon. That’s Alex, and I think a lot of people probably deal with that. But they choose to drink instead.
You’re having such a strange version of the rising star director narrative: Your debut feature wins SXSW but you never get to experience the film play before that crowd, you do the “water bottle” tour of Hollywood, but it’s all over Zoom. Where does that leave your mental state and how you want to move forward making something else?
I was just talking about this. I’ve had a lot of Zoom meetings. I’m young and don’t know anything, so I’m not good at not doing the scrappy, singular thing. I’m having these Zoom meetings with [people asking] like, “What do you want to do?” I have these ideas, and I have literally scripts where I’m like, “Here’s what I want to do.” The reaction is always, “That’s small.” And I’m like, “Yeah, it’s small!” I don’t think I’ll make a big leap after this at all. I’ll probably do a very similar thing. But in terms of the Zoom thing, it’s been really nice because I don’t have to drive in a car to go all these places.
It’s just weird to be in a lot of interviews or Zooms where people are asking you to talk about yourself for so long. I hope to God I’ll never stop thinking about how weird it is. Like, no wonder people get so self-absorbed because all it is is me talking about myself. I’m trying to keep telling myself that. It sucks that it didn’t premiere at SXSW, but I wasn’t expecting much. I’ve never been to a film festival, and I didn’t have all these dreams and hopes for it. So when it got cancelled, it was kind of like, “Oh.” But everyone’s response to it getting canceled was so nice, and people really wrapped their arms around the movies in such a kind way.
When I saw your background when reading about Shithouse, I thought the odds were low that you’d be able to talk to someone on a press tour who’d be able to talk about both the film and the specific Texas private school background it comes from.
Yeah, it’s been so nice! The thing is, I’ve just been talking so much about how it’s universal. Everyone leaves home, because not everyone goes to college, but never would I think about someone connecting to the very specific private school to college [journey] and just how special that small school makes you feel. Not special in terms of you’re the one or something, but special in terms of like, we’re just like such a community. I think a good example is if someone’s sitting down crying at Greenhill, no matter what, in five seconds tops someone would be over there making sure they’re okay. But if you go to college, even Occidental, and someone’s crying, no one is going over to say [something]. It’s just understood that people are going through their exorcisms, and you leave them alone. And with Greenhill, I think there was this constant sense of like, no, I need to be there for my fellow peer or my fellow students.
Review: Nocturne’s Insights Are Potent, but It Lacks for Searing Imagery
Nocturne is a reminder that the notes themselves are just as important as how you play them.2
Juliet (Sydney Sweeney) is jealous of her twin sister, Vivian (Madison Iseman). Both play classical piano at an artsy boarding school, but only Viv got into Juilliard. Only Viv has a boyfriend (Jacques Colimon), and despite approaching their art with less apparent intensity than Julie, only Viv has the school’s most coveted instructor (Ivan Shaw). But Julie has the black notebook, which has a creepy sun symbol on the front and once belonged to the student who kills herself in the opening scene of writer-director Zu Quirke’s Nocturne. Between the music notes, the notebook contains six creepy drawings that metaphorically come to pass in Julie’s life: Her prospects improve, but at the expense of the people in her way.
That the sixth, torn-out page of the book involves death should come as no surprise. Nocturne proceeds exactly the way it seems like it will, letting the supernatural element remain reasonably ambiguous while Julie keeps seeing a light like the symbol on her new notebook—a light so blinding and prominent that it suggests someone flying too close to the sun. She’s isolated save for her obsession, and perhaps too well, as the film struggles to create any sense of history between its characters, especially the sisters. We enter their relationship at a time when they’re already drifting apart, and the resulting characterizations lack any real specificity or intimacy beyond how Viv calls her sister “wombie,” leaving most of their animosity to weakly fizzle rather than explode after years of palpable resentment.
Behind all that, though, is some otherwise promising subtext about the desire to succeed at a young age. Julie very much feels the strain of being part of what one character calls “the Instagram generation,” where so many spotlights are thrust upon young people for their social media presences, their displays of talent, and the general democratization of fame in an age where anybody and anything can go viral. Over the years, many have struggled to cope with that attention and pressure and died young, from various child actors to the SoundCloud rappers that the film briefly invokes during one dinner table discussion. But Nocturne again stumbles over its own insularity, seemingly reluctant to explore the view of society at large as Julie notes that she doesn’t even have social media.
But rather than seeming like a dated point of contrast, classical music becomes a clever, unexpected companion to what, on the surface, appear to be distinctly modern anxieties. The film’s characters note the field’s many young prodigies up through the 20th century, while the piercing gaze of a painting of young Mozart figures prominently as a towering forebearer. With falling audience attendance and general fading interest, the current state of classical music comes to echo present-day existence: Young people need to succeed now because tomorrow is uncertain, and the light only grows brighter from a world that’s on fire.
But Nocturne still manages no accompanying sense of doom because it hardly lingers on these ideas, giving little more than cursory acknowledgement of how banal our personal markers of success can seem. If Quirke’s film means to mimic the tunnel vision of its protagonist, it does so perhaps too effectively, losing its thematic potency as it travels on a predictable trajectory, involving spooky drawings and sisterly spats, all the while leaving the existential miasma sitting out of frame. With no searing images or haunting displays of psychological insight, Nocturne is a reminder that the notes themselves are just as important as how you play them.
Cast: Sydney Sweeney, Madison Iseman, Jacques Colimon, Ivan Shaw, Julie Benz Director: Zu Quirke Screenwriter: Zu Quirke Distributor: Amazon Prime Video Running Time: 90 min Rating: NR Year: 2020