[Editor’s Note: This is the inaugural installment of a new House feature compiling links to reviews of new and recent theatrical films playing in North America. It is intended as a sampling of critical opinion and not a guide to theaters because, hey, it’s a big world. If we’ve left out any titles, or if you’d like to call our attention to a noteworthy review, feel free to leave a comment below.]
Alexandra. Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra—a film of startling originality and beauty—feels like a communiqué from another time, another place, anywhere but here. Mr. Sokurov, a Russian director best known in America for Russian Ark, makes films so far removed from the usual commercial blather that it sometimes seems as if he’s working in a different medium. His work is serious, intense, at times opaque and so feverishly personal that it also feels as if you’re being invited into his head, not just another reality.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “Spare yet tactile, a mysterious mixture of lightness and gravity, Aleksandr Sokurov’s Alexandra is founded on contradiction. Musing on war in general and the Russian occupation of Chechnya in particular, this is a movie in which combat is never shown. The star, octogenarian Galina Vishnevskaya, is an opera diva who never sings.”
American Zombie. Robert Abele, Los Angeles Times: “Grace Lee’s faux documentary takes one of horror cinema’s enduring subjects—the undead—and crafts an amusing media satire on our fascination with/fear of marginalized cultures.” Ben Sweet, LA Weekly: “Director Grace Lee plays an exaggerated version of herself in this mockumentary, which follows a pair of filmmakers as they shadow four zombies in an effort to infiltrate Los Angeles’ undead community…Computers don’t exist in their lives (a convenience-store slacker publishes a Xeroxed zine, not a blog); Live Dead, the zombies’ annual desert festival, is meant to be a Burning Man stand-in, but its dirty dreadlocked attendees and Ani DiFranco–esque balladeers are more reminiscent of Lollapalooza and Lilith Fair…The best zombie movies shock us into a realization about ourselves and the world in which we live, but how much can zombies teach us when their world so closely resembles 1995?”
Backseat. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “Only in America are adult men who refuse to grow up considered cute rather than developmentally disabled, and only in American movies is masculine immaturity celebrated with such regularity.” Ed Gonzalez, Slant: “Essentially a hit-or-miss affair, Backseat features a character who only communicates via text message, an expression of the filmmakers’ frustration for the sublimation of human relations that feels amusing but also weird for a film that suggests Sideways filtered through a hipster scrim.”
Boarding Gate.Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “I’m fairly certain one reason that the French director Olivier Assayas made Boarding Gate is that he wanted to watch the Italian actress Asia Argento strut around in black underwear and punishing heels. And why not? Ms. Argento looks delectable if somewhat demented in Boarding Gate, in which she comes across as a postmodern Pearl White, who starred in silent adventure serials like The Perils of Pauline. Ms. Argento seems to invite trouble, and Mr. Assayas, who has a way of capturing the seemingly ineffable, has a thing for troubled, troubling women.” Glenn Kenny, Premiere: “This is very much a French intellectual cineaste’s idea of a B thriller, and hence is as far from innocent in its genre as you can get. Which is not to say that Assayas deals in bad faith. There are some genuinely frisson-inducing twists, and he does wrap up the plot pretty neatly despite giving every indication that he’s not going to. In the meantime, his mastery of the camera and his always innovative approach to setting are constant, knotty pleasures; the Paris of the film’s first half is as alien to our perceived ideas of Paris as Godard’s Alphaville was, while his Hong Kong is a crumbling labyrinth where the only clues about which corner to turn are provided by cellphone rings.” David Edelstein, New York: “Boarding Gate was evidently made quickly and cheaply, and parts of it are fun. It’s too bad there’s no real viewer equivalent—that you can’t watch a film quickly and cheaply.” Kevin Thomas, Los Angeles Times: “The plot may be murky, but actress Asia Argento is a clear and commanding force throughout.”
Chapter 27. Nick Schager, Slant: “Jared Leto looks like he’s eaten his 30 Seconds to Mars bandmates in Chapter 27, a daft, unrevealing based-on-real-events film in which the actor packs on the pounds, habitually fidgets, and indulges in the occasional spazzy freakout in order to embody John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman during the three days prior to his fateful December 1980 crime.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “It’s established by now that Chapman, at the time of his crime, was full of contradictions, yearning to be like and pay tribute to Holden Caulfield, obsessed with and repelled by ’phonies,’ seeking fame by killing the most famous man in the world. Confused and profoundly vulnerable, in J.P. Schaefer’s film he is also calculating and judgmental, determined to forge order out of his own psychic and emotional chaos. His resolve inspired by a fictional character, Chapman’s insanity is here plain and not quite harrowing: he rides into the city in a cab, his profile set in deep, dark close-up as he worries out loud about the ducks Holden worried about; in a cozy bookstore, he discovers the Wizard of Oz postcard he will leave so ominously in his hotel room dresser. Every moment, every look, every brief interaction is here weighted with intent and possible meaning.”
The Cool School.Nick Schaeger, Slant: “In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Los Angeles transformed itself from an artistic wasteland into a burgeoning mecca of modern art, thereby confirming there was more to the world of painting, sculpture, and photography than what was happening in Paris and New York. With narration from Jeff Bridges, Morgan Neville’s The Cool School details this vital period of creativity, in which a group of young artists championed by curator Walter Hopps at his famous Ferus gallery (1957 – 1966) made great strides in the areas of abstract expressionism and assemblage.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “It’s an old story in some ways, a myth-making tale of a group of post-World War II aesthetic adventurers who, working together and alone, created an exciting American moment. Given the lingering prejudice of some East Coasters and the inferiority complex of select West Coasters, though, it’s also a story that deserves to be told often and as loudly as possible.” Michael Joshua Rowin, IndieWire: “It’s hard to avoid faint praise even when recommending Morgan Neville’s I, which recounts Los Angeles’ frequently overshadowed 1950s and 1960s art scene. As ’Scenes of Yesteryear’ documentaries go it does right by its subject, providing an illuminating primer on a lesser-known strand of America’s eruptive postwar art movement, even as it doesn’t do much aesthetically to distinguish itself from the pack.”
Flawless. Scott Foundas, LA Weekly: “In director Michael Radford’s latest, Demi Moore stars as the sole female executive at the fictional London Diamond Corporation, who, upon learning she’s about to get the boot, teams with a crafty cockney night janitor (Michael Caine) to empty the corporate vault of its 100-million-pound inventory. Rife with the lipstick traces of Inside Man, The League of Gentlemen (which it explicitly references) and countless other superior heist pictures, Flawless is the sort of movie that tends to get called “enjoyably old-fashioned,” except that there’s nothing enjoyable about it.” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “Caine—who, contrary to common critical opinion, is perfectly capable of giving a dull or misjudged performance—redeems this film almost wholesale.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “Flawless makes an entertainingly nostalgic journey to old Britain—that black-and-white world we remember from long-ago Alfred Hitchcock and David Lean movies.”
A Four Letter Word. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “With its breezy shots of male genitalia and characters nicknamed Long John and Tripod, A Four Letter Word is a surprisingly endearing romantic comedy that explores gay relationships with low-budget verve.” Ed Gonzalez, The Village Voice: “Shot in and around New York City’s queer hot spots (I see Vlada! I see Boys Room—the new one!), and brought to you in part by Manhunt, Andreas’s pun-choked rom-com asks only for our passive identification, preening on the same wavelength as Jesse Archer’s Luke, who sets out to prove that he is neither exception nor stereotype, only exceptional, after Stephen (Charlie David)—a hustler, professed top, and Luke’s future boy toy—calls him ’a gay cliché.’ ’All our world sees of our community is you,’ says Stephen, almost as if he were describing the film.”
The Grand. Jim Ridley, Village Voice: “Great movies about gambling—Robert Altman’s California Split, say, or Jacques Demy’s Bay of Angels—concern almost everything but the rules of the game or even the outcome of the wager. What matters are faces, surroundings, sharp talk, and the behavior of people in the grip of fixation—people undaunted by losing, yet unappeased by winning. The Grand, a largely improvised comedy set at a Las Vegas poker championship, isn’t as good or tough-minded as those movies. But it earns a seat at the table anyway, mostly because it’s funny—sometimes very funny.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “Werner Herzog plays The German. In another movie, this might be all you need to know. But in Zak Penn’s improvisational comedy, this delicious detail is slightly less meaningful. Though Herzog spends several minutes in mock-interview mode, describing how essential it is for him ’to kill something each day,’ these are fleeting and generally overwhelmed by the rest of the movie’s awkward unfunniness.” Philip Marchand, Toronto Star: “Just shy of being a first-rate comedy.” Jan Stuart, Newsday: “Why don’t mockumentaries ever go after targets worth the mocking?”
Hats Off. Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “A documentary tribute to the 93-year-old actress Mimi Weddell, one of those people for whom the word ’individual’ seems especially apt. Widowed at 65 by a husband who left only unpaid bills and fond memories, the indomitable Ms. Weddell saw an opportunity to follow her passion. ’I love illusion,’ she says, describing an acting career that has paid her bills for almost three decades. From Law & Order to Sex and the City, from vampire movies to cheese commercials, this remarkable woman has compiled a résumé that defies the industry’s rampant ageism.” Matthew Margini, Washington Square News: “That a 63-year-old woman could give birth caused comedian Patton Oswalt to dismiss science as being ’all about coulda, not shoulda.’ Such words gnaw at Mimi Weddell, who treats her age as just a minor impediment to stardom, glamor and theatrical nobility. The new documentary Hats Off examines Weddell’s mystique from a number of entertaining angles, but doesn’t necessarily share (or preach) her unique perspective, which is at times stubbornly airy and self-obsessed.” Nick Schager, Slant: “Quaint and slight, Hats Off revolves around Mimi Weddell, a 93-year-old model and actress (of stage and screen) whose boundless energy and indefatigable spirit are amazing…ly ho-hum.”
Just Add Water. Ernest Hardy, LA Weekly: “There’s really only one reason to check out Just Add Water, and it’s Dylan Walsh’s wistful, smiling-through-the-melancholy performance as Ray, a man so defeated by life that he can no longer muster any resistance to the daily humiliations he suffers at home and at his blue-collar job. After discovering duplicity in his own home, Ray shakes off the doldrums, goes after the woman of his dreams and finally stands up to the Neanderthal teen bullies in his neighborhood. Unfortunately, bracketing Walsh’s thoughtful performance is a depiction of small-town, working-class life that swims in both formulaic indie-flick irony and Hollywood condescension.” John Anderson, Variety: “Whimsy and the macabre are the operating systems in Just Add Water, and they’re not always complementary.”
My Brother Is an Only Child. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “A lively minor addendum to the grand tradition of Italian fraternal cinema.” Ed Gonzalez, Slant: My Brother Is an Only Child—whose title I’ve yet to completely wrap my mind around—moves so playfully and briskly you may not notice its glibness, which may have been director Daniele Luchetti’s intent.” Nick Pinkerton, Village Voice: “The family as microcosm of a divided country: Two brothers ’come of age’ in late-‘60s Italy, as political strife reaches their provincial Latina (a city laid out by Mussolini’s government)…If expectedly cynical about junior black-shirt hooliganism, Daniele Luchetti’s film is also ambivalent about how piggishness takes the guise of ’free love’ among the left, and deadpan funny with its ’de-fascisized’ performance of ’Ode to Joy’ at a student-occupied conservatory.” David Edelstein, New York: “What makes My Brother Is an Only Child so alive and entertaining is how it dramatizes the endless tug-of-war between political conviction and personal experience—the way the lines twist and blur and finally implode.” Armond White, New York Press: “Luchetti’s film continues the Italian tradition of movies that simultaneously explore family life and national politics…The broken-down house the boys grow up in (from which Accio eventually liberates them to better digs) is, of course, a symbol for Italy itself.”
Priceless. Ed Gonzalez, Slant: “Pierre Salvadori’s re-imagining (read: vulgarization) of Breakfast at Tiffany’s wears its contempt on its sleeve.” Vadim Rizov, Village Voice: “Priceless begins as standard, unconvincing, assembly-line French farce and ends as a cop-out, feel-good rom-com. In between, it develops into something considerably more interesting.” Raphaela Weissman, New York Press: “The American poster for the French comedy Priceless shows an elegantly dressed Audrey Tautou surrounded by four hands offering up expensive baubles. From this, we can glean the basic plot: The adorable pixie from Amélie plays a gold-digger. It’s not inaccurate, but it is misleading. While the publicity’s focus is on Tautou, an actress Americans immediately recognize (she also starred in an art-house flick called The Da Vinci Code), Priceless belongs to her co-star, Gad Elmaleh, who lends the film the bulk of its charm, originality and genuine humor.” Stephen Holden, New York Times: “Because its shenanigans are so improbable, Priceless is too frivolous even to be called satire.”
Run, Fat Boy, Run. Eric Kohn, New York Press: “Even Simon Pegg has repeatedly underutilized the distinct comedic appeal of Simon Pegg. Run, Fat Boy, Run, the directorial debut of David Schwimmer—inextricably identifiable as Ross from “Friends”—gives Pegg a screenplay credit, suggesting that he has written to his weaknesses. In both Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, Edgar Wright’s sly genre deconstructions, Pegg mimics the audience’s thrill of being adrift in fantastical conflict with wide-eyed incredulousness and a goofy demeanor. Akin to the underdog appeal of slapstick artists like Buster Keaton, the pathetic nature of Pegg’s characters hardens into a heroic streak. In Fat Boy, playing an out-of-shape security guard who runs a marathon to prove his worthiness to an ex-girlfriend, Pegg just seems pathetic.” Matt Prigge, Philadelphia Weekly: “Did the guy who came up with hurling second-rate Prince records at zombies really dream up a gag about a volcanic foot boil being popped in some poor guy’s face?” David Edelstein, New York: “The director, David Schwimmer, underlines the jokes and adds exclamation points, but a softer touch probably wouldn’t have helped.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “Run, Fat Boy, Run is the kind of movie that’s apt to be dismissed a goofy lark. It is that. But it’s also a rare comedy that believes in its own message, and that could inspire the depressed and the demoralized to grit their teeth and keep running.”
Shelter. Chuck Wilson, LA Weekly: “Zach (Trevor Wright) is a promising artist who turned down CalArts to stay in San Pedro and help his irresponsible older sister (played by the amazingly gifted L.A. actress Tina Holmes) care for her little boy. At the beach, Zach, who surfs as often as possible, reconnects with his best friend’s gay-novelist older brother, Shaun (Brad Rowe). The two start hanging out and eventually begin an affair, Zach’s first with a man. Like much of this impressive first film from writer-director Jonah Markowitz, Zach and Shaun’s relationship feels authentic and true; you can imagine them being together for a long time to come.” Jeannette Catsoulis, New York Times: “The movie’s abundance of tanned bodies, rolling waves and golden sunsets create an aesthetic of inoffensive hedonism that perfectly matches the subject matter.” Fernando F. Croce, Slant: “The first project of the here! gay television network’s new movie initiative, Shelter regrettably plays closer to Lifetime fodder.”
Shotgun Stories. David Edelstein, New York: “The story is set in southeast Arkansas, against a landscape of isolated farms and dilapidated main streets, and the rhythms are languid; but the lines that pop out of these stuporous characters’ mouths have the bitter tang of real life.” Steven Boone, The House Next Door: “Glorious Southern fried sloth, in epic widescreen.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times. “Jeff Nichols’s drama about warring clans of brothers in small-town southern Arkansas defines the classic western phrase ’doing what a man’s got to do’ as both a moral imperative and a biological compulsion. The movie is filled with unremarkable men who would rather die than appear weak.”
Stop-Loss. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “Even if you think the U.S. presence in Iraq is justified, Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss provides a poignant and shattering portrait of what our soldiers have to endure in combat, at home, and from an army that sends its men and women back into battle over and over again.” Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly: “Comprised of bitter, beautifully observed truths butting up uncomfortably against loads of hoary Hollywood hooey, writer/director Kimberly Peirce’s extremely well-meaning Stop-Loss attempts to battle the trend of audience indifference toward Iraq War dramas. But the movie’s real war is with itself.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The sober, mournful piety that has characterized a lot of the other fictional features about Iraq—documentaries are another matter—is almost entirely missing from Stop-Loss, which is being distributed by Paramount’s youth-friendly label MTV Films. Not that the movie is unsentimental—far from it—but its messy, chaotic welter of feeling has a tang of authenticity. Instead of high-minded indignation or sorrow, it runs on earthier fuel: sweat, blood, beer, testosterone, loud music and an ideologically indeterminate, freewheeling sense of rage.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “This is a wrenching story of men at arms who cannot find peace outside the military circle, who return to civilian life on the horrific edge of violence and despair. In this Stop-Loss has a certain amount in common with Boys Don’t Cry. Peirce again concerns herself with men and violence as well as with individuals conflicted over gender roles trying to work out what society demands of them.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Peirce makes her points, all right. She just doesn’t trust us to get them.”
21. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “One would expect a movie about high-stakes gambling in Las Vegas and young, attractive savants using their smarts to break the bank at blackjack to be sexy and thrilling. Unfortunately, 21 winds up being about as exciting as freshman calculus.” Manohla Dargis, New York Times: “Greed is good and comes without a hint of conscience in 21, a feature-length bore about some smarty-pants who take Vegas for a ride.” Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune: “21 isn’t pretentious, exactly, but it’s damn close, and in trying to whip up a melodramatic morality tale the film becomes an increasingly flabby slog.” Robert Wilonsky, LA Weekly: “The big-screen version of Ben Mezrich’s book ain’t no gamble at all—it’s about as risky as playing the nickel slots with 10 cents in your pocket. It’s as though director Robert Luketic (Legally Blonde, Monster-in-Law) and writers Peter Steinfeld (Be Cool, as if) and Allan Loeb adapted the book-jacket blurb rather than crack the spine.”
The Bank Job. Jim Emerson, Chicago Sun-Times: “A serviceable B-grade British heist movie, “The Bank Job” is no worse than its generic title. And no better.” Robert Wilonsky, Dallas Observer: “Statham—reduced to muttering guttural groans in various bombs that close on opening weekend (In the Name of the King, War) or get released directly to DVD (Chaos) or spawn inexplicable franchises (Transporter, Crank)—at last proves himself a leading man who does more than lead with his head. It isn’t till the film’s end that he has to throw a few punches and land a few head-butts—contractually obligated, no doubt. But by then he’s managed to negotiate a screenplay in which there are complete sentences—whole paragraphs, even—that he gives his all without breaking a sweat; even when he has to convince his missus he’s a stand-up shitheel, Statham’s totally believable. He might yet become Bruce Willis.”
Be Kind Rewind. Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times: “Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind is whimsy with a capital W. No, it’s WHIMSY in all caps. Make that all-caps italic boldface. Oh, never mind. I’m getting too whimsical. Maybe Gondry does, too. You’ll have to decide for yourself. This is a movie that takes place in no possible world, which may be a shame, if not for the movie, then for possible worlds.” Elbert Ventura, ReverseShot: “Be Kind Rewind contains reminders of the limits of this brilliant artist. That the movie still enthralls is a testament to the fact that Gondry’s starting point—an aesthetic in which each frame bears its maker’s sensibility—is miles ahead of where most filmmakers aspire to be.”
Chicago 10. J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “Chicago 10, an electrifying new “mash-up documentary” by Brett Morgen, vividly reconstructs the battles on the street and in the courtroom, and it couldn’t come at a more opportune moment.” Jim Emerson, Chicago Sun-Times: “Through the kaleidoscopic prism of Brett Morgen’s uproarious Chicago 10, a zippy mixture of documentary footage and motion-capture animation, we see how the confrontations between police and protesters at the 1968 Democratic National Convention played out as political theater.”
Cloverfield. Oily Richards, Empire: “Wise to the fact that the most frightening attack is the one without apparent reason, Cloverfield never chooses to explain its monster’s arrival. It’s suddenly there and, as one soldier notes, ’it’s winning’. It intends to scare, not educate. The constant air of panic is so pervasive that it’s easy to miss the skilful creation of the sequences, which include a rescue from a collapsing skyscraper and a tunnel sequence so butt-clenching you’ll crap diamonds for a week.” Keith Phipps, Onion A/V Club: “It’s absolutely terrifying, and it’s all the more effective for the way it lets viewers spend time getting to know the terrified stars, and the emotions and regrets behind their seemingly futile efforts to survive. It puts human faces on the victims of mass destruction, faces that might easily have been yours or mine, staring down the maw of something we don’t understand.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “[Producer J.J.] Abrams may be exploiting images of a national trauma, but politicians have been doing the same thing for years in pursuit of even less noble ends: the $10 you’ll spend on Cloverfield hardly compares with the estimated $487 billion spent to date on the war in Iraq.” Richard Corliss, Time: “A horror/sf/disaster movie loses points every time you’re forced to ask yourself, ’Why are they doing something so stupid?’, and the answer is, ’Because they’re in a horror/sf/disaster movie.’ And if you thought that Abrams—the creator of Felicity, Alias and Lost, and the writer-director of the spiffy if underperforming Mission: Impossible III—would produce a horror movie that was not just high-concept but high-IQ—you misjudge his faithfulness to a genre requiring that, in extremis, people act in a manner that’s way below their intelligence levels.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Is Cloverfield trying to be a ’fun’ monster movie, or is it trying to say something about the way, post-9/11, we experience horrific events? I simply have no idea.”
The Counterfeiters. Steven Rea, Philadelphia Inquirer: ” For the prisoners in Blocks 18 and 19 of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, meals were served, beds provided, light opera floated from the speakers. There was even a ping-pong table to play on. But as writer-director Stefan Ruzowitzky shows, powerfully, affectingly, in The Counterfeiters, the privileges experienced by this small team of Jews and criminals came at a price.” David Denby, The New Yorker: “The Counterfeiters is a testament to guile.” Adam Bernstein, Washington Post: “Based on a real-life Nazi operation, the film is a tense drama with performances that elevate the movie to the front rank of films set in concentration camps, from Gillo Pontecorvo’s magnificent 1959 drama Kapo to Steven Spielberg’s Schindler’s List of 1993.”
Diary of the Dead. Jim Emerson, The Chicago Sun-Times: “When young filmmakers gather to shoot cinema-verite video documentaries, watch out: Something really bad is going to happen. In The Blair Witch Project, it was…well, we don’t really know what it was, but it sure freaked out Heather. In Cloverfield, it was something large with an antipathy toward Manhattan landmarks. And in George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead, as you have probably gathered by now, it is the meat-eating undead. These movies give the shaky-cam a reason to get shaky—but the kids try not to miss a shot.” David Edelstein, New York: “Compared with other first-person motion-sickness horror pictures like The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead is weak tea, yet there’s enough social commentary (and innovative splatter) to acidulate the brew—to remind you that Romero, even behind the curve, makes other genre filmmakers look like fraidy-cats.” J.R. Jones, Chicago Reader: “Diary of the Dead proceeds as if the events of the first four movies never happened, starting over in the present with a handful of film students whose no-budget shoot for a mummy thriller is interrupted by an outbreak of zombie violence. The premise allows Romero a second childhood of sorts, a chance to revisit the independent spirit of his first big hit even as he reflects on how much America has changed in the past 40 years.”
Doomsday. Gideon Levy, UnderGroundOnline: “The most fun thing about Doomsday was watching a generic action flick run the gamut from near-future militarism to post-apoc tribal punkland to the Dark Ages without any boring plot twists to slow down the shoot & slash & run & kill. When they get to the souped-up sports car that appears out of nowhere, you’re ready for the chase scene & big boom at the end. If only the action scenes – the only backbone holding together this otherwise paper-thin film – weren’t so lazily and poorly edited, I could’ve really enjoyed this film that made no pretenses to being more than it was.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The New York Times: “Doomsday has an appealing punk-rock sneer, but aside from a few clever music cues—including a Fine Young Cannibals song that accompanies a deranged bacchanal given by fine young cannibals—swagger is, unfortunately, its only notable quality.” Gina Piccalo, San Francisco Chronicle: “There is no slow build in Doomsday. Geysers of blood, severed limbs and pustule-ravaged faces blanket the opening frames. Then Rhona Mitra’s machete-wielding babe with the removable, bionic eyeball shows up to wreak her own pickax-to-the-face brand of havoc, decapitating her way through tribes of Thunderdome-ready cannibals. That’s when things really get moving.”
Drillbit Taylor. Keith Uhlich, UnderGroundOnline: “There are worse things, I suppose, than being below-waistline roundhoused by a Hollywood celebrity. Chief among such tortures would be experiencing the complete sense of desperation that marks Drillbit Taylor’s each and every scene .” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “’You get what you pay for,’ the tag line on the advertisement says. I saw it free, and I still feel cheated.” Raphaela Weissman, New York Press: “Its comedy falls flat, and the film has a violent core where its heart should be.” Xan Brooks, The Guardian: “The final bell can’t come soon enough.”
Frownland. Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “It’s a horror film about everyday life in which characters who fail to recognize their own freakish aspects behave monstrously toward others: Marty by way of Eraserhead.” Daniel Cockburn, ReverseShot: “Its 100%-celluloid material and Method-ish performances may be just more convention, but all these conventions counterbalance to create something new.”
Funny Games. Fernando F. Croce, The House Next Door: “Michael Haneke is a clever guy. I promised myself I’d never revisit his 1997 film Funny Games, yet he’s tricked me into doing just that by remaking it, shot by agonizing shot…The plot is still The Desperate Hours rewritten by the Marquis De Sade.” David Edelstein, New York: “Naomi Watts produced this remake, apparently concluding that she hadn’t yet been sufficiently violated onscreen. King Kong, after all, turned out to be a softy—now she’s in the hairy paw of a giant ape artiste.”
The Hammer. Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “The synopsis of The Hammer makes it sound like a long-lost Billy Crystal movie: a smart-alecky, self-destructive Los Angeles handyman named Jerry Ferro (Adam Carolla) loses his job and his girlfriend, then reconnects with his past as a Golden Gloves boxer and tries to qualify for the United States Olympic team at 40. Mr. Carolla, an amateur boxer and cable television veteran, has a tendency to riff when he should be acting, and the whole project—written by Kevin Hench and directed by Charles Herman-Wurmfeld (Kissing Jessica Stein)—is rambling and disorganized. At the same time, though, The Hammer also has dry wit and unforced working-class swagger, and hits some surprising emotional notes.”
Horton Hears a Who! A.O. Scott, New York Times: “What distinguishes Horton Hears a Who! from the other recent Dr. Seuss film adaptations—How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat, in case you need reminding—is that it is not one of the worst movies ever made.” Dennis Cozzalio, Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule: “An inspired CGI comedy that honors the spirit of the good doctor’s story even as it expands upon it thematically.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “The ratio of innocent enthusiasm to commercial cartoon formula is higher than I expected. Co-directors Jimmy Hayward and Steve Martino, scriptwriters Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio and the animators from Blue Sky (the Ice Age studio) have managed to adapt Seuss without turning him out, which I guess counts as progress.”
In Bruges. Bilge Ebiri, Nerve: ” Way more engaging than a bantering-hitman-with-a-heart picture released in 2008 has any right to be, Martin McDonagh’s In Bruges might have made serious waves back in 1994. Today it feels like a mysterious creature from another age—devoid of grit or naturalism, and shot with a composed elegance largely missing from today’s screens. In other words, it’s a fairy tale with guns and exploding heads. That’s its blessing and its curse.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Often it feels that McDonagh’s script is as adrift as one of the boats on the shimmering canals. The pace is too slow, at times lagging behind the adrenalin-packed story, the film relying heavily on Carter Burwell’s theatrical score. But perhaps the most disturbing thing about In Bruges is its predictable ending.”
Irina Palm: A.O. Scott, New York Times. “Irina Palm may be the work of a German-born Belgian director, but it belongs to a sturdy and very British genre: the naughty-granny comedy, in which an older woman is liberated and rejuvenated by an excursion into vice.” Jim Ridley, LA Weekly: “Nobody can reduce tawdry material to doddering quaintness like the British, but this staggeringly inane joint effort of U.K., Belgian, French, German and Luxembourgian film financing represents a true coalition of the witless.”
Jar City. A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The picture of Iceland that emerges in Baltasar Kormákur’s Jar City is vivid and powerful but not something the country’s tourist board would be likely to endorse. The landscape has its austere poetry to be sure—mountains framing the apartment blocks of Reykjavik, spits of volcanic rock jutting into a churning sea—but a fog of damp unhappiness seems to pervade every face and conversation. And yet by the end of this film, based on a popular mystery novel by Arnaldur Indridason, it is hard not to feel a certain affection for the place.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “This is not just a fictional story about a couple who lose their four-year-old girl to a brain tumor, nor just a tale about the search for a murderer and his motive, but an intriguing blend of the two, overlaid by a Big Brother that takes the form of the nonfiction, controversial deCODE Genetics Inc., a company specializing in genetic research that, several years ago, received access to all medical files in the Icelandic government’s database. Invasion of privacy or scientific necessity? As a government stand-in character argues near the beginning of the film, information isn’t ’personal’ since it’s been passed on for generations. Rather, it belongs to society. But does society have a right to know about every disease, even those that can’t be cured?”
Juno. Fernando F. Croce, Slant: “Lke the titular character’s accidental pregnancy, Juno has a fumbling start and an affecting delivery.” Elbert Ventura, ReverseShot: “Juno is occasionally funny, rarely intelligent, and often annoying. A crowd-pleaser for people who like to think they’re above crowd-pleasers but are actually not.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “Juno doesn’t make judgments or pronouncements. Its great beauty lies in how generous it is toward all its characters.” Richard Schickel, Time: “Juno is not a great movie; it does not have aspirations in that direction. But it is, in its little way, a truthful, engaging and welcome entertainment.” Marcy Dermansky, About.com: “Though too precocious and polished, Juno manages to charm, with many lovely moments. In the tradition of maladjusted teen comedies, however, Juno doesn’t rank among the recent greats.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody has described herself as a ’naked Margaret Mead,’ a cultural anthropologist who for years studied the rites and rituals of the stripper tribe in lieu of the nine-to-five grind. It’s a great line and a quite telling one, for this writer’s scientific approach to life is precisely why Juno ultimately fails.”
Look. Maureen M. Hart, Chicago Tribune: “According to the producers of Look, the average American is unwittingly photographed up to 200 times a day, thanks to the 30 million surveillance cameras at work in this country 24/7. With all this attention, are we any safer? What is the state of privacy rights if we’re never really alone? For those answers, look elsewhere.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “Between the likelihood of surveillance cameras capturing every dramatically significant moment (with crystal-clear sound) and the filmmaker’s deployment of ripped-from-the-tabloids ugliness to amp up viewer involvement, Look grows less compelling and believable as it unreels.”
Love Songs. David Edelstein, New York: “Honoré has proven you can make a movie musical in which style doesn’t upstage content—a movie musical that blossoms from the inside out.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “The Paris of Christophe Honoré’s Love Songs (Les Chansons d’Amour) belongs unmistakably to the present. Its residents talk on cellphones and drop the name of Nicolas Sarkozy (still an aspirant to the Élysée Palace rather than an occupant when the movie was being shot). But they also dwell, just as noticeably, in the Paris of classic French movies—in a vague, bracing atmosphere of good old Nouvelle Vague.”
Married Life. Bill Gibron, PopMatters: “Marriage might just be the perfect cinematic allegory. You can infer so many differing metaphoric elements in the dissection of why men and women marry – and sometimes separate – that the permutations appear endless. There’s the emotional facet, the sexual supposition, the commitment and loyalty facets, and of course, the scandal ridden and adulterous angles. Together with an equal array of stylistic approaches, we wind up with a veritable cornucopia of combinations, a wealth of possibilities linked invariably to the age old notion of vows taken and knots tied. So why is it that Ira Sachs’ period piece drama Married Life is so downright flat?” Keith Uhlich, The House Next Door: “A deeply felt examination of the ties that bind.” Desson Thomson, Washington Post: “How is it that the disastrous repercussions of an extramarital affair could be considered entertaining, and even comforting, viewing? By presenting it as a nail-biting, cautionary tale set in another era. Director Ira Sachs and co-writer Oren Moverman (who adapted the John Bingham Five Roundabouts to Heaven) take the basic ingredients of those old-time films noir, shake them in a postmodern martini mixer, then pour it into chilled glasses for our delectation.” Chris Wisnieswki, ReverseShot: “Married Life falls somewhere between parodic pastiche and straightforward narrative. Like Todd Haynes’ Far from Heaven, it filters its period details through classical Hollywood genre while nevertheless striving for emotional resonance. Where Haynes pulled off this nearly impossible gambit, though, Sachs falls short on both counts.”
Never Back Down. Keith Uhlich, UnderGroundOnline: “As Never Back Down would have it, Orlando, Florida is a spoiled rich kid’s haven, littered with cavernous million dollar mansions and inhabited by sun-baked, iPhone-toting teenagers prone to nightly Fight Club-like bouts of bloodletting. Parents and trailer trash are non-existent, but rock-hard abs are legion (for truth-in-advertising purposes the film might best be subtitled ’Chest Porn’). Into this sweat-drenched sea of masculine mammaries comes fresh-faced Iowan Jake Tyler (Sean Faris), whose stretch-lipped, teeth-grinding intensity suggests he’s just graduated summa cum laude from the Tom Cruise Finishing School for Wanton Pretty Boys.”
No Country for Old Men. Jim Emerson, Scanners: “I’ve used the term ’existential thriller’ (and/or ’epistemological thriller’) to describe movies such as Chinatown and Caché. It’s a useful term because it can be used across genres and it describes the nature of the “thrills” the movie has in store. Chinatown is also a period American detective noir and Caché is a modern French intellectual puzzle and No Country for Old Men is a contemporary Texas Western chase movie, but they’re all inquiries into the nature of knowledge and existence. They all ask: ’What do we know and how do we know it?’ Is there a more worthy or essential question?” Michael Koresky, ReverseShot: “The most rewarding thing about No Country is the way in which its narrative is set up as a singularly unstoppable force, a shark constantly moving forward (every scene seems to have a goal, every frame initially gives off the impression of tightly relaying crucial plot information), only to allow itself to purposefully break down, both in terms of resolution and traditional narrative payoffs.” Sukhdev Sandu, Daily Telegraph: “Is it a masterpiece? Not even close.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “No Country’s message, such as it is (the Coens aren’t message-y directors) is not about Where We Are Now. It’s simpler and more encompassing, less reminiscent of reportage or the editorial page than the admonitions of a philosopher or court jester: Get over yourselves, Americans, and everyone else, too.” Andrew Tracy, ReverseShot: “What they’re doing is so impressive within its limits that the only criticism one can level is that the Coens are clearly aiming for something far beyond those limits, and have not the skill or character to reach it.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “I admire the creativity and storytelling craft of the Coen brothers, but I can’t for the life of me figure out what use they think they’re putting that creativity and craft to.”
The Other Boleyn Girl. Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “The Other Boleyn Girl is the most sterile of bodice-rippers, a genteel soap opera in which the sex and intrigue are so muted, so tasteful, that they practically blow off the screen in a scattering of dust.” David Edelstein, New York: “A brisk feminist melodrama that is, historically speaking, a load of wank.” N.P. Thompson, Movies Into Film: “The Other Boleyn Girl, about two virtuous daughters who become rival whores for King Henry VIII, may reach its apex when Anne (Natalie Portman) takes her sibling Mary (Scarlett Johansson) by the hand, on the night before the latter beds the King for the first time, and exclaims, ’My little sis-tah! My golden sis-tah! My milk-and-honey sis-tah!’”
Paranoid Park. Vadim Rizov, The House Next Door: “If I were over 40 and/or French—in other words, if I hadn’t been to American public high school recently enough to still experience a little residual shudder thinking about it—I might well be blown away by Paranoid Park, Gus Van Sant’s not-so-breathlessly awaited return to the semi-conventional narrative.” Kevin B. Lee, The House Next Door: “Gus Van Sant finally crawls out from under his Béla Tarr-inspired long-take detachment and dares to explore an interior landscape in ways not seen since My Own Private Idaho. Indeed, the privacy of this film—a reflection of its insular protagonist—is what puts the shockingly violent death that haunts its sinuous narrative a league apart from those in Van Sant’s most recent work.” Ann Hornaday, Washington Post: “Working with cinematographer Christopher Doyle, best known for his work with such Hong Kong directors as Wong Kar-wai, Van Sant films Paranoid Park with dreamy, mesmerizing lassitude (those swooping skateboards), as well as the subversive brio of something caught on the fly; at one point, Doyle films Portland street scenes on Super-8 film, then bars the subjects’ eyes out, tabloid style. At other moments, Van Sant derives his inspiration from silent films. One memorable scene features the face of young actress Taylor Momsen as she reacts to unwelcome news, her wide-eyed expression resembling a cross between Lillian Gish and a Bratz doll.” Zachary Wigon, The House Next Door: “The awkwardness inherent in being a teenager is captured by one of the most rarely encountered cinematic techniques: a director intentionally using unintentionally bad acting.”
Shutter. Andy Webster, The New York Times: “The director, Masayuki Ochiai, conjures textbook J-horror miasma: clammy clinical interiors; overcast skies; diffuse cityscapes. He also gives Alfred Hitchcock a nod, with a sequence nakedly stolen from Psycho, and draws unease from Jane’s disorientation in a foreign city. Tokyo, in fact, may be the movie’s most fascinating player. But the mandatory bump-offs—a gouging through a viewfinder, a compelled suicide—lack novelty.” Rafer Guzman, Newsday: “Have you ever seen a horror film in which a character, against her better judgment, approaches a motionless body sitting in a chair facing the wall, then slowly turns it toward the camera? How about a horror film in which this happens more than once? How about three times?” John Hutchins, UnderGroundOnline: “With un-likeable, shallowly written characters populating a formulaically garbled storyline filled with plot contrivances, Shutter’s redeeming qualities are few and far between.”
Snow Angels. Sean Burns, Philadelphia Weekly: “David Gordon Green’s fourth feature is both magnificently silly yet strangely gentle, at least until two gunshots echo in the distance. Like his previous film, the confused backwoods-chase picture Undertow, Snow Angels finds this wonderfully distinctive filmmaker suffering growing pains, trying to wrestle his meandering, oddball sensibilities into the requirements of conventional genre forms.” Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “At its center, and much like David Gordon Green’s other movies, from the brilliant George Washington to Undertow, Snow Angels is about faith. More precisely, it’s about doubt and desire, the underpinnings of faith.”
The Spiderwick Chronicles. Roger Ebert, The Chicago Sun-Times: The Spiderwick Chronicles is a terrific entertainment for the whole family, except those below a certain age, who are likely to be scared out of their wits. What is that age? I dunno; they’re your kids. But I do know the PG classification is insane, especially considering what happens right after a father says he loves his son.” David Edelstein, New York: “The Spiderwick Chronicles boasts some of the ugliest animated creatures this side of Jar-Jar Binks, and the friendly ones are only marginally less repulsive than the lethal ones. (The obnoxious vocal stylings of Martin Short and Seth Rogen don’t help.)”
Sputnik Mania. Vadim Rizov, The House Next Door: “At times, the movie seems to be less about Sputnik and more of an Atomic Cafe redux.” Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Times: “David Hoffman’s documentary treats 1950s America as an ancient time and place that can be scrutinized with archaeological detachment. Narrated by Liev Schreiber in wry, ominous tones, Sputnik Mania characterizes post-World War II America as a fat and happy society, secure in its belief that it ruled the globe and spooked by the ambitions of a despised and underestimated rival.”
10,000 B.C.. Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “About an hour into 10,000 B.C., a young boy prisoner is being shipped away to a far-off desert. His captors are mean, tall, and swarthy, and one, called One Eye (Marco Khan) for obvious reason, is especially brutal, given to whipping and kicking his charges. Still, Baku (Nathanael Baring) is spunky and steadfast, certain that his savior will yet appear. And indeed, he is rewarded, for lo! upon a distant dune, Baku spots D’Leh (Steven Strait), hollering as the ship bearing the captives heads off downriver. Baku yells back and smiles broadly, even as his young companion wonders if D’Leh will actually follow and save them. Oh yes, nods Baku. D’Leh is in love with yet another captive, the beautiful, blue-eyed Evolet (Camilla Belle), and to illustrate, the boy makes a kissy-face and writhes in exaggerated pleasure, before he grimaces at the mushy thought. It’s an unexpectedly light moment in this ponderous exercise. Baku’s quite charming, and his understanding of this tiresome plot is dead-on. The hero will save the girl he has loved since childhood, fulfill his destiny, and oh yes, in the process also wreak vengeance on the nasty slavers. Even as Baku comprehends his dire situation, he also mocks the cliché. Thank goodness for small amusements.” Lauren Wissot, The House Next Door: “Perhaps this film is rated PG-13 because it’s not suitable for anyone with post-pubescent thinking skills?”
There Will Be Blood. Glenn Kenny, There Will Be Blood: “Is Plainview a personification of the excesses of capitalism? Could be. I don’t know and I don’t care. All I know is that this film invaded my consciousness (literally—I had a dream about it the first night I saw it, a very rare occurrence) and still has a tight, daunting grip on it.” Jeff Reichert, ReverseShot: “A slow-moving whirlwind that suddenly, utterly spent, just finishes.” Karina Longworth, SpoutBlog: “I confess: Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood has pretty much slain me.” J. Hoberman, Village Voice: “From the deliberately dark and fragmented prologue to the wildly excessive denouement, this movie continually defamiliarizes what might sound like a Giant-style potboiler.” Matt Zoller Seitz, The House Next Door: “It isn’t perfect or entirely satisfying, but it’s so singular in its conception and execution that one can no more dismiss it than one can dismiss a volcanic eruption occurring in one’s backyard.” C. Jerry Kutner, Bright Lights After Dark: “It remains a story about aberrant individuals, setting us up for some great unexpected insight about community and our present-day world that it never delivers.” Bilge Ebiri, Nerve: ” An epic with a coal-black heart.” Jonathan Rosenbaum, Chicago Reader: “Paul Thomas Anderson’s fifth feature, a striking piece of American self-loathing loosely derived from Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, is lively as bombastic period storytelling but limited as allegory.” Armond White, New York Press: ““No!” is the first word spoken in There Will Be Blood, and it should be the last said in response to Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest pretend epic.” Stephanie Zacharek, Salon: “An austere folly, a picture so ambitious, so filled with filmmaking, that its very scale almost obscures its blankness.” N.P. Thompson, The House Next Door: “Minor virtues, welcome as they are, cannot begin to salvage There Will Be Blood.”
Tyler Perry’s Meet the Browns.. Alonso Duralde, MSNBC.com: “The good are rewarded and the wicked are punished. Perry keeps things moving at a brisk clip—aided by his editor, Robert Altman veteran Maysie Hoy—and the cast turns what might have been caricatures into interesting and fleshed-out characters.” A.O. Scott, New York Times: “Madea, the vociferous, big-boned grandmother Mr. Perry played in that film (and then in Madea’s Family Reunion), makes a brief, raucous cameo near the end of Meet the Browns. Not for any reason having to do with the picture’s many story lines, but just as a kind of lagniappe, a gift of pure silliness for the loyal public.” Armond White, New York Press: “Ruthlessly alternating pathos with broad, profane family satire, Perry exceeds the boundaries of chitlin’ circuit theater.”
Under the Moon. Cynthia Fuchs, PopMatters: “’What are you going to do, call the police?’ Hardworking, conscientious, and illegal, Rosario (Kate del Castillo) has no recourse when her employer (Jacqueline Voltaire) decides to ’let her go.’ Taut-faced and designer-outfitted, the woman has no cause to fire her housekeeper, but so what? She’s unaccountable and besides, she’s a dismal stereotype. ’Oh for god’s sake,’ she sniffs at Rosario, ’you’ll find something else, because you’re young.’ No matter that Rosario is struggling to make enough money to bring her nine-year-old son across the border, that she hasn’t seen that son for four years, or that actually finding ’something else’ will be an ordeal. The white lady—nicknamed ’Cruella de Vil’ by Rosario’s best friend and fellow domestic—has had a bad day. Rosario’s determination and resilience ground the moral design of Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna).” Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor: “Some tearjerkers are jerkier than others.”
The Unforeseen. Andrew Schenker, The House Next Door: “The Unforeseen neatly encapsulates the problems of the contemporary political non-fiction film: its importance as social document is everywhere countered by its poverty as cinema.” Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times: “The Unforeseen has the title of a science fiction thriller, not a thoughtful documentary on the environment, but there’s truth in that packaging. As directed by Laura Dunn, this unusual film unfolds like a mournful whodunit, with the Earth itself being the victim of the crime.”
Vantage Point. Talis Saule Archdeacon, Baltic Times: “The trouble with Vantage Point is that the movie—much like the terrorists it is about—is constantly shooting itself in the foot.” David Denby, The New Yorker: “The movie is intended as an homage to Kurosawa’s Rashomon, but, really, it’s quite different. In Rashomon, the varying accounts of a rape and murder are shaped by self-interest. Vantage Point is more literal; it shows what each person actually sees, not what he wants to see. In each depiction, we get a little closer to comprehension of the entire affair only to have the film-makers—in a rather cheap trick—cut away to still another character’s restricted view of things. Finally, they abandon the vantage-point experiment, shift to an impersonal view, and finish the story in a conventional way. Like so many other thrillers, this one ends in a series of car crashes and shootouts.”
The Years My Parents Went on Vacation. Bill Stamets, Chicago Sun-Times: “The Year My Parents Went on Vacation gives us a boy’s-eye view of a turbulent Brazil in 1970. Pele and soccer goals mean more than Che or slogans spray-painted on walls. For a 12-year-old, reuniting your family scores higher than overturning a repressive regime.” John Anderson, Washington Post: “Call me a cynic, but it’s plain to see why Brazil made The Year My Parents Went on Vacation its candidate for this year’s foreign-film Oscar. Kids. Old people. Cuteness. Dire circumstances that don’t interfere with the cuteness but imply gravity nonetheless—the old Life Is Beautiful gambit.” Adam Nayman, Eye Weekly: “Doesn’t so much draw you in as glide on by.”
Review: Madre Moodily Reflects on How the Memory of Loss Distorts Reality
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s feature-length Madre contemplates how memories of loss linger and distort the present.3
Rodrigo Sorogoyen’s 2017 short Madre didn’t just make the most of its constraints, it embraced them. What Sorogoyen couldn’t show directly due to budgetary constraints he evoked in dialogue and mise-en-scène, while turning the inherent time limit into a narrative device: the last bar of a cellphone battery. Everything that made the film so of its type should have rendered it unfit for expansion. Counterintuitively, Sorogoyen has plunked the short, unchanged, at the start of his feature-length adaptation, which then diverges from it radically in pacing and tone without sacrificing the coherence of the feature as a whole, like an explosion followed by silence. If the short embodied panic at the prospect of loss, the feature is a more contemplative affair, about how memories of loss linger and distort the present.
The film’s first act is a torrent of dialogue. Elena (Marta Nieto) gets a call from her ex-husband’s number. It turns out to be her six-year-old son, Ivan (Álvaro Balas), abandoned on a beach somewhere in Spain or France. In a desperate bid to pinpoint his location, Elena begs her son to describe his surroundings, but what is any beach but “sand” and “water”? A stranger is approaching him, he says. Elena shouts for her son to run. He’s hiding under a tree trunk, he says, but the stranger finds him as the line goes dead. The intensity of Nieto’s performance compels us to imagine what Elena believes to be happening to her son, and like a good horror film, Madre knows that a wildly extrapolating imagination can terrorize easier than any image, no matter how ghastly. The sole detail about the stranger that Ivan relays, that he’s urinating, is more than enough to cast him as a potential threat.
The remainder of the film trades rapid-fire dialogue for quiet, painterly compositions, making it something of a spiritual successor to Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad. Its uneasy tone is established with the very next scene, which opens “10 years later” on a beach—footprints scattered across an expanse of sand muted under a leaden sky. In a long shot, the silhouettes of distant people, alone or in clusters, resemble flies crawling on a fogged-up windowpane, an unsettling hum filling the soundtrack.
Sorogoyen’s camera begins a methodical pan along the coastline, at last centering one of the tiny figures, who turns out to be Elena walking head down in a sand-colored dress. A swarm of figures in black approaches at a run from the opposite direction, seeming to envelope her as a wave crashes over the soundtrack, and it’s the straggler among this group, Jean (Jules Porier), wearing surfing gear as if coughed up by the ocean, who compels her to look up. Elena recognizes something of Ivan in this 16-year-old boy, sparking an epilogue that stretches out until it overwhelms what the viewer thought was the story proper.
This film’s landscape shots impose a filter of ambiguity that we can only puncture with speculation. Just as mist smears the borders between land, sea, and sky, it’s never clear to Elena whether Jean is really her long-lost son, though a certain affinity between them cannot be denied. Sorogoyen leaves it up to the viewer to decide if the urgency of their entanglement comes down to filial intimacy or sexual tension. Either way, its inappropriateness erodes her tepid relationship with a controlling farmer (Alex Brendemühl), as well as Jean’s bond with his (adoptive?) family. In a dream near the end of Madre, Elena finally “sees” the tree trunk Ivan hid under 10 years before and hears a snarling animal devouring the child, prompting her upon waking to rescue Jean, or abduct him from his family, depending on how you view it.
The feature-length Madre presents the aftermath of traumatic loss in all of its ambiguity—how what we lose revisits us in disguise, how from the outside this haunting can appear, as more than one character refers to Elena, “psycho.” By projecting her despair into the landscape, Sorogoyen shows us her grief inside out, where it cannot be judged, only witnessed.
Cast: Marta Nieto, Jules Porier, Alex Brendemühl, Álvaro Balas Director: Rodrigo Sorogoyen Screenwriter: Isabel Peña, Rodrigo Sorogoyen Distributor: Strand Releasing Running Time: 128 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Wolfwalkers Vibrantly Confronts and Plays on the Fear of the Unknown
The storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.3
Though the world of Wolfwalkers abounds with the Celtic magic of shapeshifters and healing spells, it’s the film’s art itself that sometimes seems the most enchanted. Showcasing the same hand-drawn animation that has distinguished Cartoon Saloon’s earlier Irish mythology-inspired works (The Secret of Kells and Song of the Sea), Wolfwalkers pans across still, verdant landscapes that occasionally burst with life, with creatures crawling out of trees in the otherwise frozen background. Inspired by early modern woodblock prints, filmmakers Tomm Moore and Ross Stewart play with depth and texture, their vivid characters materializing in the foreground like figures in a watercolor puppet theater.
As Wolfwalkers begins, the 17th-century Irish city of Kilkenny has a wolf problem. Outside the city’s walls, the forest is inundated with them, and the Lord Protector (Simon McBurney) needs to put his farmers safely to work. Enter Bill Goodfellowe (Sean Bean), an English huntsman who’s tasked with eliminating the wolves. But as Bill scours the forest for his prey, his restless daughter, Robyn (Honor Kneafsey), sneaks off to explore the area and is promptly attacked and bitten by a wolf who’s actually a girl, Mebh (Eva Whittaker), and whose spirit takes on lupine form while her human body sleeps. Pretty quickly, Robyn is feeling the effects of that wolf bite—she’s now also a wolfwalker—and she’s eager to help Mebh find her missing mother and save their pack from Bill and the ever-angrier mob of wolf-hating citizens.
In human form, Robyn makes for a boisterously snarky hero, but she’s even more fun to follow as a wolf. The film’s most distinctive sequences depict the world from a wolf’s-eye view—or, rather, a wolf’s nose, as shimmering, colorful streaks of scent trails show how the transformed Robyn navigates the forest on all fours. While Song of the Sea dug deeply into a grief-stricken family’s healing against a background of modern Celtic myth, Wolfwalkers focuses on a different kind of reunification: the Goodfellowes becoming one with the natural world, both the fragile environment and the animals that fight for survival within it. Ecological messaging drives Will Collins’s screenplay to an inevitable, climate-centric climax, even if the film’s mystic swirls overwhelm any practical, contemporary takeaways about caring for the Earth.
Wolfwalkers growls scornfully, if imprecisely, at the herd mentality that overtakes a violent citizenry and the way that organized religion feeds this fearful frenzy. Local bullies torment Robyn, the English outsider, as they act out their fantasies of wolf slaughter, but there’s not quite enough backstory here for us to be sure whether these kids inherited their wolf anxiety unfairly or whether it’s justified by the wolves’ occasional viciousness. Moreover, the seemingly genuine piety of the anti-wolf and anti-pagan Lord Protector muddies an otherwise villainous portrait with an arc that projects neither hypocrisy nor redemption clearly.
The loveliness of Moore and Stewarts film, however, lies precisely in its reluctance to pack a punch. Just as some frames turn impressionistic, with borders of leaf patterns replacing more faithful forest scenery, the storyline’s edges are frayed just enough to give it the gentle distance of a tale recalled though the gauze of myth and memory.
Cast: Honor Kneafsey, Eva Whittaker, Sean Bean, Simon McBurney, Tommy Tiernan, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Jon Kenny, John Morton, Nora Twomey, Oliver McGrath, Paul Young, Niamh Moyles Director: Tomm Moore, Ross Stewart Screenwriter: Will Collins Distributor: GKIDS Running Time: 103 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: His House Is a Creepy Allegory About Learning to Live with Trauma
Throughout, Remi Weekes forcefully, resonantly ties the film’s terror to the inner turmoil of his characters.3
British writer-director Remi Weekes’s His House opens with a striking montage of refugees crossing a war-torn Sudan and dangerously cramming onto a boat that will traverse choppy waters on an unimaginably long, treacherous journey toward England. When a loud crash is heard from the back of the boat, the film cuts to a shot of the ocean, where we witness numerous people drowning, including a young girl calling out for her mother. Before this horrific event is even resolved, Weekes again cuts away to reveal that this is neither a prologue nor a flashback, but rather the vivid nightmare of a Sudanese man, Bol (Sope Dirisu), reliving the terror of a night he experienced a year earlier alongside his wife, Rial (Wunmi Mosaku), and daughter, Nyagak (Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba).
The unresolved trauma that strips away at this family’s defenses is horrifyingly manifested when they finally move into their designated low-income housing, and struggle to navigate a foreign culture that insists on assimilation. Bol is desperate to fit in, ensuring the immigration bureau that he and his family are good people and telling his wife that, in their new surroundings, they’re “born again.” But Rial doesn’t share his eagerness, as her experiences in England have been almost entirely unpleasant, from the indifference and condescension of their smarmy, burnt-out case worker, Mark (Matt Smith), to the outright xenophobic, such as when three black neighborhood kids mock her and tell her to go back to Africa.
Weekes paints a rich portrait of the migrant experience, accounting for the inextricable nostalgia for home and the impulse to conform and cut ties with the past. These disparate approaches collide in a moving scene where Bol, after being confronted by spirits dwelling in his house, yet still in denial about their presence, burns his and Rial’s old belongings. It marks a rupture in their relationship, and where Rial is left feeling like she has nothing, Bol leaves to go shopping for Western-style clothes, at one point gazing helplessly at a cheerful white family in an in-store display before gathering the outfits they’re wearing in a futile attempt to replicate their appearance. It’s a blunt but potent illustration of how migrants’ feelings of displacement can emerge in different ways, often violently and self-destructively.
As Bol and Rial contend with their adversities, their home becomes an increasingly dangerous battleground in which they’re forced to wrestle with their inner demons and find ways to adapt without fundamentally changing who they are. This house, with its porous walls and ragged, peeling wallpaper, is eerily symbolic of its new inhabitants’ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghosts—most chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film.
Throughout His House, Weekes’s seamlessly blends horror with elements of kitchen-sink drama and African folklore, morphing the domestic space into an uncanny, liminal zone where the distinctions between past and present, as well as Africa and Europe, are blurred beyond recognition. It’s an unusual combination, but one that’s rendered even more forceful and emotionally resonant by the director’s ability to tie the film’s terror so precisely to the inner turmoil of his characters and the myriad psychological and social challenges they face.
Cast: Sope Dirisu, Wunmi Mosaku, Matt Smith, Malaika Wakoli-Abigaba, Javier Botet, Yvonne Campbell, Vivienne Soan, Lola May, Kevin Layne Director: Remi Weekes Screenwriter: Remi Weekes Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020
The 100 Best Horror Movies of All Time
The good horror film insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity.
One of the most common claims made about horror films is that they allow audiences to vicariously play with their fear of death. Inarguable, really, but that’s also too easy, as one doesn’t have to look too far into a genre often preoccupied with offering simulations of death to conclude that the genre in question is about death. That’s akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially don’t exist. A more interesting question: Why do we flock to films that revel in what is, in all likelihood, our greatest fear? And why is death our greatest fear?
A startling commonality emerges if you look over the following films in short succession that’s revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works aren’t about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anyway—of a life unlived. There’s an explicit current of self-loathing running through this amazing collection of films. What are Norman Bates and Jack Torrance besides eerily all-too-human monsters? Failures. Success also ultimately eludes Leatherface, as well as the socially stunted lost souls of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu? He makes for quite the presence, but his hungers ultimately lead him to oblivion.
So many films, particularly American ones, tell us that we can be whatever we want to be, and that people who don’t achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ain’t that easy. This genre resents platitude (certainly, you can count the happy endings among these films on one hand), but the good horror film usually isn’t cynical, as it insists on the humanity that’s inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say there’s hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that we’re all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editor’s Note: Click here for a list of the titles that made the original 2013 incarnation of our list.
100. Raw (2016)
As in Ginger Snaps, which Raw thematically recalls, the protagonist’s supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin who’s poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sex—a no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexia’s (Ella Rumpf) insistence that “beauty is pain” and a song that urges a woman to be “a whore with decorum.” In this film, a bikini wax can almost get one killed, and a drunken quest to get laid can, for a female, lead to all-too-typical humiliation and ostracizing. Throughout Raw, director Julia Ducournau exhibits a clinical pitilessness that’s reminiscent of the body-horror films of David Cronenberg, often framing scenes in symmetrical tableaus that inform the various cruelties and couplings with an impersonality that’s ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. We’re witnessing conditioning at work, in which Justine is inoculated into conventional adulthood, learning the self-shame that comes with it as a matter of insidiously self-censorious control. By the film’s end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that she’ll get with the program and regulate her hunger properly, or be killed or institutionalized. Bowen
99. A Bay of Blood (1971)
Compared to the other giallo films that comprise most of Mario Bava’s canon, A Bay of Blood (also known as Twitch of the Death Nerve) represents a more stripped-down and economic filmmaking from the Italian master. Notably absent are the supernatural undertones and fetishistic sexuality, and Bava even suppresses the vigorous impulses and desires that drive his characters to exteriorize their feelings in vicious bursts of violence by offering no valid (or convincing) psychological explanation. Despite being one of Bava’s simpler works, or perhaps because of that very reason, A Bay of Blood has proven to be the foremost progenitor of the slasher film, the one in which the Jason Voorheeses and Ghostfaces owe their blade of choice to. But it’s only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one that’s remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this film’s existence. It’s in this film’s elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the film’s acolytes can’t discern among the copious amounts of blood spilled within its frames. Wes Greene
98. Alice, Sweet Alice (1976)
Throughout Alice, Sweet Alice, Alfred Sole paints a rich and febrile portrait of how society enables dysfunction on multiple fronts, from the domestic to the religious to the psychiatric. (The police are shown to be restorers of order, though they serve that function almost inadvertently.) The filmmaker also invests his narrative with references to classic horror films, most notably Psycho, though his own direction lacks Alfred Hitchcock’s polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the film’s best sequences, particularly the moments following Karen’s (Brooke Shields) murder, Sole allows for tonal inconsistencies that reflect the true shock of violence. In such instances, Alice, Sweet Alice turns momentarily shrill, with actors screeching their lines almost directly to the camera—a device that expresses pain and refutes the fashions with which many horror directors rush through the grief process haphazardly in order to move the narrative along. In other moments, though, Sole’s directorial control is magisterial. Annie’s (Jane Lowry) near murder, when she’s stabbed on the stairway, is framed in a prismatic image, with a mirror reflecting the assault back on itself and suggesting, once again, the intense insularity of this world. Bowen
97. Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992)
“See me. See me now,” Gary Oldman’s undead vampire intones, so as to magically compel virginal Mina Murray (Winona Ryder) to turn his way on a crowded London street. The two wind up at a cinematograph, “the greatest attraction of the century.” The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppola’s take on the classic Bram Stoker material winds up collapsing history and cinema together. Coppola shunned budding CGI technology in favor of in-camera techniques such as rear projection (as when we see Dracula’s eyes fade in over the countryside, overlooking a callow Keanu Reeves) and forced perspective (such as trick shots using miniatures of castles, which seem to loom over the full-sized actors and coaches in the foreground). However flagrantly artificial and constructed, the whole film feels uniquely alive. Dracula has “crossed oceans of time” to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiences—how movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stoker’s Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppola’s fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldman’s deliciously over-the-top performance, exert an overpowering sense of the uncanny. Like the vampire, the film infects us and offers an illusory respite from death. Niles Schwartz
96. Blood for Dracula (1974)
The horror of Blood for Dracula derives in part from director Paul Morrissey’s unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece that’s ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kier’s Count Dracula, unable to find virgin blood amid the sexually active women of a 19th-century Italian family, finds himself quite literally poisoned by change. As Dracula vomits up non-virgin blood like water from a fire hydrant, Morrissey films Kier’s convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizzi’s tragic score, holds on Dracula in close-up as he delicately applies make-up. The film, far too strange to be flatly interpreted as a conservative lament for lost sexual decorum, convincingly focuses on the body as the root source of all humankind’s tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
95. Martyrs (2008)
Writer-director Pascal Laugier’s Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his film’s heroine, a “final girl” who’s abducted and tortured by a religious cult straight out of a Clive Barker novel, is forced to endure is considerable. Which is like saying that King Kong is big, Vincent Price’s performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugier’s film is grueling because there’s no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The film’s soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that there’s no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You don’t watch Laugier’s harrowing feel-bad masterpiece—rather, you’re held in its thrall. Abandon hope all ye who watch here. Simon Abrams
94. Night of the Demon (1957)
With Night of the Demon, Jacques Tourneur pits logic against the boundless mysteries of the supernatural, focusing not on the fear of the unknown and unseen, but the fear of accepting and confronting the inexplicable. After asking Dana Andrews’s comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnis’s wily satanic cult leader conjures up a storm of epic proportions to prove to the pragmatic doctor that the power of the dark arts is no joke. But the warning doesn’t take. Later, when a man is shredded to pieces by a demon, onlookers debate whether the death was a result of a passing train or something more nefarious, to which Holden retorts, “Maybe it’s better not to know.” Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesn’t exist. Derek Smith
93. The Devil’s Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toro’s films are rabid commentaries on the suspension of time, often told through the point of view of children. A bomb is dropped from the skies above an isolated Spanish orphanage, which leaves a boy bleeding to death in its mysterious, inexplosive wake. His corpse is then tied and shoved into the orphanage’s basement pool, and when a young boy, Carlos (Fernando Tielve), arrives at the ghostly facility some time later, he seemingly signals the arrival of Franco himself. A rich political allegory disguised as an art-house spooker, The Devil’s Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But there’s hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santi’s past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the film’s children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
92. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reeves’s American remake, Tomas Alfredson’s Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (Kåre Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one child’s painful coming of age is conflated with another’s insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampire’s arrested own, as a prolonged horror—life’s most vicious and unforgiving set piece. This study of human loneliness and the prickly crawlspace between adolescence and adulthood is also an unexpectedly poignant queering of the horror genre. Don’t avert your eyes from Alfredson’s gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
91. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poe’s most disquieting tales, 1934’s The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studios’s horror crown. Edgar Ulmer’s melancholy film is a confrontation between two disturbed World War I veterans, one warped by an evil faith and the other a shattered ghost of a man driven by revenge, and the young couple that becomes entangled in their twisted game. It’s a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freund’s gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmer’s deeply elegiac film is a grief-stricken work, a spiraling ode to overwhelming loss, both personal and universal. Josh Vasquez
90. Brain Damage (1988)
Throughout Brain Damage, Frank Henenlotter’s images have a compact and gnarly vitality. He frequently cordons people off by themselves in individual frames, serving the low budget with pared-down shot selections while intensifying the lonely resonance of a man set adrift with his cravings. Bria’sn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outré, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, who’s murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as she’s about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this film’s images is a shot of the back of Brian’s neck after Aylmer—an eight-inch-or-so-long creature that resembles a cross between a tapeworm, a dildo, and an ambulant piece of a shit along the lines of South Park’s Mr. Hanky—has first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brian’s pain as he touches it. Such moments hammer home the unnerving simplicity of the premise, likening drug addiction to volunteer parasitism, rendering self-violation relatable via its inherently paradoxical alien-ness. Bowen
89. Gremlins (1984)
Outlining his customary commentary on American society via an artistry informed by influences ranging from B horror films to Looney Tunes, Joe Dante satirizes our neglect of rationality under rampant commercialism through the nasty titular creatures. All raging id, the Gremlins want nothing more than to indulge in every vice that our increasingly corporatized culture has to offer. The resulting anarchy unleashed by the Gremlins during the yuletide season is appropriate, considering they were created when Zach Galligan’s Billy, like an official advocating free-market deregulation, ignored foreboding warnings that terror would occur if he had just stuck to the three simple rules of caring for Gizmo, the cutest of all Gremlins. Wes Greene
88. Angst (1983)
Gerald Kargl’s Angst is a 75-minute cinematic panic attack. Body-mounted cameras, high-angle tracking shots, amplified sound design, and a bone-chilling krautrock score swirl together to create a manic, propulsive energy that’s as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Leder’s unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Kargl’s camera prowls around Leder’s madman like an ever-present ghost—a haunting, torturous presence that captures every bead of cold sweat, each anxiety-ridden movement, and the agony of all his facial expressions as he tracks his prey. Angst is as singular and exhausting an account of psychopathy as any put to celluloid, thrusting the viewer helplessly into discomfiting closeness with a killer without attempting to explain or forgive his heinous acts. Smith
87. The Devils (1971)
Ken Russell brings his unique sensibility, at once resolutely iconoclastic and excessively enamored of excess, to this adaptation of Aldous Huxley’s nonfiction novel The Devils of Loudun, which concerns accusations of witchcraft and demonic possession that run rampant in an Ursuline convent in 17th-century France. Like Michael Reeves’s Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russell’s film serves as an angry denunciation of social conformity and the arbitrary whims of the political elite that effectively disguises itself as a horror movie. By brazenly conflating religious and sexual hysteria, and depicting both with his characteristic lack of restraint, Russell pushes his already edgy material into places that are so intense and discomforting that the film was subsequently banned in several countries and is to this day still unavailable on home video in a complete and uncut version. Budd Wilkins
86. The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Before the flourishing digital age paved the way for social-media naval-gazing, YouTube, and selfies galore, The Blair Witch Project foreshadowed the narcissism of a generation, its success unsurprisingly paving the way for an army of imitators that failed to grasp the essence of Daniel Myrick and Eduardo Sánchez’s terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naïve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror that’s arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick
85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)
Narciso Ibáñez Serrador’s Who Can Kill a Child? takes its time building a mood of palpable dread, eking menace out of every social encounter faced by a British couple, Tom (Lewis Fiander) and Evelyn (Prunella Ransome), vacationing on the coast of Spain. When they charter a small boat and travel out to a remote island village, the streets are curiously empty and the only residents seem to be sullen, introspective children. Ibáñez Serrador methodically draws out the waiting game, and as the kids gather their sinister forces and close in on our unsuspecting couple, a moral conflict arises. The adults are forced to contemplate the unthinkable, doing battle with the little monsters and struggling with the notion that they may have to kill or be killed. Tom manages to get his hand on a machine gun, and he carries it around with him protectively as the audience wonders to themselves how he’ll answer the question posed in the title. Whether or not the answer surprises us during these cynical times, the aftermath is as disarming as it is disturbing. The closing 10 minutes come from a different era in filmmaking, when horror movies could spit in the eye of the status quo and say that good doesn’t always prevail, no matter how much we’d like it to. Jeremiah Kipp
84. The Haunting (1963)
Cacophonous knocking, inexplicable coldness, and doors that have a habit of opening and closing when no one’s looking—the horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wise’s adaptation of Shirley Jackson’s famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But they’re nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Haunting’s supercharged production values: Elliot Scott’s dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boulton’s swooping, darting wide-angle cinematography; and, most of all, a quiet-loud-quiet sound design that suggests the presence of the spirit world more forcefully than some corny translucent ghost ever could. The film’s oh-so-1960s psychosexual subtext may be slightly under-baked, but that only serves to heighten the verisimilitude of its supernatural happenings. After all, there are some things in this world even Freud can’t explain. Keith Watson
83. Häxan (1922)
Near the conclusion of Häxan, an intertitle asks: “The witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isn’t superstition still rampant among us?” Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensen’s eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of women’s bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankind’s fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth that’s still with us, nearly a century later: that the horrors of the past are never so far away. Dillard
82. In the Mouth of Madness (1994)
John Carpenter’s 1995 sleeper is a lot of things: a noir, a Stephen King satire, a meta-meta-horror workout, a parody of its own mechanics. Carpenter can’t quite stick the landing(s), but watching his film twist and turn and disappear inside of itself as it twists its detective thriller beats into a full-on descent into the stygian abyss proves consistently compelling. Perhaps the best tack is that of Sam Neill’s driven-mad investigator, pictured in the film’s final frames hooting at images of himself projected in an abandoned movie theater. Perhaps the best way to enjoy In the Mouth of Madness is to relinquish your sanity, losing yourself inside of its loopy, Lovecraftian logic. John Semley
81. Near Dark (1987)
The zenith of a career phase defined by sneakily subversive genre films, Kathryn Bigelow’s melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. It’s a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the period’s twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp icons—Bill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhinged—bring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. It’s Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dream’s score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das
Review: Robert Zemeckis’s Take on The Witches Casts a Weak Spell
This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly.1.5
For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020’s wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckis’s take on Roald Dahl’s dementedly fun short novel The Witches could serve as a key piece of evidence. While there are some elements to admire in this adaptation, particularly its being cast with mostly black performers, much of it falls into the category of Competent But Unnecessary Remake. In other words, another piece of family-friendly-ish content to fill the yawning hours of pandemic confinement.
While the setting is shifted from late-1980s Europe to 1968 Alabama, the bones of the story—scripted by Zemeckis along with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barris—match those of Nicolas Roeg’s 1990 adaptation. An orphaned and unnamed young boy (Jahzir Bruno) is sent to live in with his kindly but starchy Grandma (Octavia Spencer). After a frightening run-in with a snake-carrying woman who eyes him like he was a tasty piece of candy, the boy is informed by Grandma that what he saw was no woman, but a witch. Knowing from personal experience that witches love to kidnap children and turn them into animals, Grandma decides it’s time for a vacation. Unfortunately, their destination also happens to be the site of an international witches’ convention (meeting under the tongue-in-cheek name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
Much of Zemeckis’s film follows the boy coming to terms with loss and trying to rediscover some sense of fun even while navigating the danger posed by the witches and the delectable chocolate bars they use as bait. Things come to a head in a showy dramatic scene roughly halfway through the film set inside a swanky hotel ballroom. That’s where the witches—who otherwise look like heavily made-up society ladies from a well-intentioned, awards-courting period film about the South—meet to remove their human camouflage and scheme about best practices for annihilating children from the planet. Trapped under the dais, the boy is treated to the spectacle of the witches removing their wigs, gloves, and shoes to reveal a sea of bald heads, claws, and monstrous, Joker-wide jaws normally hidden by pancake makeup.
While advances in the quality of special effects since 1990 should theoretically have made the ballroom scene a blockbuster showcase, the CGI deployed here is for the most part unimpressive. The rippling of the witches’ bodies as they transform is rendered almost seamlessly. But that smoothness of effect ends up achieving little of the impact delivered by the grotesque Dark Crystal-esque physical effects that Jim Henson Studios used for Roeg’s more disquieting version. This is a sleeker-looking vehicle that’s eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly. When Anjelica Huston’s Grand High Witch in Roeg’s film removed her human guise, she was revealed as a long-beaked monster rippling with pustules and stray hairs. The Grand High Witch of this version, played by Anne Hathaway, has the same sashaying arrogance, but it’s more suited for a fashion show’s runway than a child’s nightmares.
More positively, this adaptation of The Witches benefits from the increased willingness of studio producers to greenlight projects with largely black casts for a “mainstream” audience. Also, Zemeckis fortunately didn’t feel a need to repeat the previous film’s coda, which tried in slapdash fashion to cast some light on a chilling Grimmsian fairy tale about murdered children. However, that coda is replaced by a non-Dahl framing device voiced by Chris Rock that brings a new wrinkle to the conclusion which would be more enjoyable if it weren’t doing double duty as the launch pad for potential sequels or spin-offs.
Cast: Octavia Spencer, Jahzir Bruno, Anne Hathaway, Stanley Tucci, Kristin Chenoweth, Chris Rock, Codie-Lei Eastick Director: Robert Zemeckis Screenwriter: Robert Zemeckis, Kenya Barris, Guillermo del Toro Distributor: HBO Max Running Time: 106 min Rating: PG Year: 2020
Review: Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s Satire Could Use Sharper Teeth
Too often, the film teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly.2.5
Following the massive global success of Borat, Sacha Baron Cohen’s most indelible comic creation became a victim of his own success. The mustachioed Kazakh journalist—whose racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and downright backwardness are leavened by his blithe optimism—became so recognizable—in part, through the ubiquity of bad impersonations and cheap Halloween costumes—that he had to be effectively retired. That’s a shame, because while Borat was always, at heart, a cartoonish stereotype, he was also a potent and surprisingly elastic embodiment of America’s deep ignorance about the rest of the world.
Though ostensibly a reflection of small-town Kazakh life, Cohen’s vision of Kazakhstan is really an elaborate amalgamation of various Warsaw Pact countries, including Russia and Poland, and though Borat himself would be loath to admit it, his incomprehensible language draws inspiration from Romani and Hebrew. In 2006, at the height of George W. Bush’s so-called war on terror, Borat was often mistaken for an Arab. In one of the original film’s most notorious scenes, rodeo producer Bobby Rowe advises Borat to shave his “dadgum mustache,” which makes him look suspiciously Muslim, so that he might even pass for an Italian. (All this before eagerly agreeing with Borat on the subject of executing gay people.)
In Borat’s much-belated follow-up feature—officially titled Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, with lengthy, ever-changing subtitles such as Gift of Pornographic Monkey to Vice Premier Mikhael Pence to Make Benefit Recently Diminished Nation of Kazakhstan appearing on screen throughout—Borat is coded less as an Arab and more as an avatar of Eastern Europe, that part of the world where poverty and post-Soviet collapse have fostered a climate conducive to sex trafficking. This region is where Jeffrey Epstein allegedly outright purchased a young woman, Nadia Marcinko, and where Donald Trump’s third wife (whom Epstein claimed to have introduced to the Donald) hails from as well. It’s no surprise, then, that cracks about Epstein and jokes about Melania being Trump’s golden-caged slave are frequent in the film. An important revelation is even inspired by a TV broadcast of the infamous footage of Trump and Epstein partying together. While Cohen’s satirical targets are too diverse and the film’s structure too freeform to lock the film down to a single thematic underpinning, the use and abuse of young women by powerful men is its most persistent satirical target.
After being sentenced to a gulag for disgracing his country with his prior film, Borat is offered by former Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev (Dani Popescu) a chance to redeem himself by traveling to America and gifting Vice President Mike Pence with the locally famous simian porn star Johnny the Monkey. Unfortunately for Borat, Johnny is eaten on the journey over by his 15-year-old daughter, Tutar (Maria Bakalova), who stowed away in the same shipping container as the primate. What’s Borat to do? The solution is obvious: to present Pence with his underage daughter instead—which he does, albeit from a distance, dressed as Donald Trump while Pence delivers a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference. When that fails, he chooses a much more willing recipient, one whose all-too-eager response to Tutar’s advances have already made headlines: Trump’s personal consigliere, Rudy Giuliani.
The climactic confrontation with Giuliani inside the Mark Hotel in Midtown Manhattan, during which Tutar poses as a conservative journalist in order to make her move on “America’s Mayor,” is perhaps Borat Subsequent Moviefilm’s most shocking and uncomfortably hilarious scene—not simply for the already-infamous hand-in-his-pants moment. The giddiness that Giuliani exhibits in response to Tutar’s sexual advances illustrates so starkly the lecherous sense of entitlement that drives such inappropriate and predacious behavior.
If only the entire film were up to the standard of that scene, Cohen might have achieved the impossible and lived up to the groundbreaking impact of Borat. And there are other individual sequences whose discomfiting rawness would not have been out of place in the first film, such as a trip to a Christian-run crisis pregnancy center after Tutar accidentally swallows a baby decoration on top of a cupcake. The staff member, thinking she’s pregnant and asking for an abortion, firmly assures her that the baby is in fact a blessing, even when he’s under the impression that it was the result of incestuous rape. An interview with an Instagram influencer who preaches the gospel of feminine weakness and subservience to men is on point as topical satire though not as cringe-inducingly funny as the best Cohen material.
More often, though, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm teases big, wild comedic set pieces that end up deflating almost instantly. A trip to the Texas State Fair—with Borat disguised, as he is for much of the film, as a grizzled hayseed with a Prince Valiant hairdo—would seem to offer endless opportunities for up-close-and-personal pranks, but instead it’s largely just the backdrop for a few sight gags. Similarly, Borat’s elaborate transformation into Donald Trump in order to infiltrate CPAC presents a golden opportunity for some bread-and-butter Cohen antics, providing unsuspecting reactionaries with the perfect opportunity to tell the president they love (and, unwittingly, the audience) what they really think. Instead, the whole affair is wasted on a stunt that gets Cohen immediately kicked out of the event.
Where Borat mined the humor of reaction—how do unsuspecting, and mostly well-meaning, people react when confronted with a ludicrous foreigner who says wildly un-PC things?—the sequel too often feels like it’s desperately struggling to shock its unwitting participants and coming up short, as evidenced by an outlandish fertility dance performed at a debutante ball. This absurd spectacle, which climaxes in Tutar flashing her menstruation-soaked panties, barely produces a whimper from the spectators. And while the film is, for the most part, no less crude than its predecessors—gleefully indulging in stereotypes about backwards foreigners—there are signs that Cohen may have lost some edge in the intervening decade and a half.
Cohen evidently wants us to feel for his subjects, to find even a bit of empathy for some Qanon conspiracy theorists and Trump cultists. That may be a noble goal in itself, but it’s not always the stuff of sharp satire. Nor is the film’s closing entreaty to the audience to get out and vote. Borat, like practically all satirically minded comedy in the Trump era, has been swallowed up into the all-consuming maw of electoral politics. If the idea of the original Borat ending with a plea to go to the polls would have seemed almost absurdly out of place, in 2020, Borat Subsequent Moviefilm doing the same feels almost inevitable.
Cast: Sacha Baron Cohen, Maria Bakalova Director: Jason Woliner Screenwriter: Peter Baynham, Sacha Baron Cohen, Jena Friedman, Anthony Hines, Lee Kern, Dan Mazer, Erica Rivinoja, Dan Swimer Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTA’s Ambiguities
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work.
The title of Adam Nayman’s Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the book’s introduction as “…cheerleading—the stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.” While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, he’s willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Anderson’s strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kenny’s Made Men: The Story of Goodfellas, Masterworks pushes back against the simplistic, bro-ish language of adulation, and attending backlash, that often obscures a major artist’s achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a critic’s loftiest goals: grappling with a body of work while honoring its mystery.
Masterworks is uncomfortable with the modern iteration of auteurism, which has been corrupted from its French New Wave origins by being utilized as often macho shorthand that denies the contributions of other craftspeople involved in a film’s production. (At the end of the book are several essential interviews with key Anderson collaborators, such as producer JoAnne Sellar, cinematographer Robert Elswit, production designer Jack Fisk, and composter Johnny Greenwood.) Seeking to refute the Horatio Alger element of a particular auteur worship, in which a body of work is discussed chronologically, with a filmmaker’s maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Anderson’s films in chronological order according to the time periods in which they’re set. The book opens with 2007’s There Will Be Blood (the director’s fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002’s contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Anderson’s final (to date) curdled valentine to San Fernando Valley, as well as his first psychodrama with a loner at its center. Nayman only deviates from this concept once, as 2017’s Phantom Thread, Anderson’s eighth and most recent film, is saved for last and presented as a culmination of a blossoming sensibility.
This structure creates a fascinating temporal zig-zag that mirrors the chaotic, uncertain highs and lows of creative work. Masterworks moves us forward in the timeline of Anderson’s America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014’s Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Anderson’s 1997 breakthrough, Boogie Nights, which Nayman astutely sees as a virtuoso primitive work, an epic that (too) neatly bifurcates pleasure and pain into two distinct acts while disguising its sentimentality with astonishing camera movements and a tonal instability that’s probably equal parts intended and inadvertent.
Control is the theme of Masterworks. Nayman charts, again in a nearly reverse order, how Anderson reigned in his juvenilia—the self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swings—to fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only they’re buried and satirized, existing on the periphery. The essential valorizing of Jack Horner, the paternal porn director of Boogie Nights, eventually gives way to the richer, more fraught examinations of obsessive pseudo-father figures like Daniel Plainview, Lancaster Dodd, and Reynolds Woodcock, of There Will Be Blood, 2012’s The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Anderson’s films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry who’ve, with a few exceptions, made America in their own neurotic image.
As these characters grow in complexity, their ingenues also evolve in nuance, becoming less fantasy projections of Anderson’s own desire to prove himself than startlingly unique expressions of rootlessness and ambition. Boogie Nights, which Nayman calls a two-and-a-half-hour dick joke, even sets the stage for the ironic phallic references of the other films, with their plunging oil derricks, broken glass toilet plungers, and, well, Woodcocks.
No critic has written so perceptively about Anderson’s mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, it’s a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Nayman’s descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: “Emerging and descending at his own methodical pace, he’s an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movements—grueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progress—establishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.”
Such “patterning” is an obsession of Nayman’s, as it should be given the films under consideration, and he shows how Anderson buried the overt psychosocial daddy and women issues of Boogie Nights and 1999’s Magnolia into an intricate formalism that’s complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that we’re missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Anderson’s understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Anderson’s bold often “lateral” imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that he’s chewing, with increasing sophistication, a set of preoccupations over and over, gradually triumphing over his fear of women as he sees his men with escalating clarity. Nayman uncovers many twins and cross-associations that have never personally occurred to this PTA obsessive, such as the resemblance that Vicky Krieps’s Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell in The Master, or how the mining of oil in There Will Be Blood is later echoed by the exploitive plumbing of minds in The Master.
Nayman’s discussion of Anderson’s ellipses—especially the bold leap 15 years in time near the end of There Will Be Blood as well as the two-year jump near the beginning of the filmmaker’s 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eight—implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Anderson’s work. Some people believe that Anderson uses such devices to write himself out of corners, excusing himself from the task of building relationships or establishing in more detail the contours of the history informing the films, while, for his admirers, such flourishes are suggestive and freeing—excusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the “good parts,” the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonists’ and Anderson’s demons. Nayman understands Anderson to be fashioning a cumulative hall-of-mirror filmography that highlights an America in elusive, surreal, even daringly comic fragments. Or, per Nayman: “His later films are masterworks that don’t quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.”
Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice Júnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
It’s a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolasco’s Dry Wind and Gil Baroni’s Alice Júnior, both screening in the international section at this year’s NewFest, are refreshing in no small part because they find two Brazilian filmmakers telling stories set in regions of their country that are cinematically underrepresented and largely unknown to international audiences. Dry Wind, for one, takes place in the rustic countryside of the state of Goiás, known for its cowboy iconography, livestock music festivals, and extremely conservative politics. It is, then, a provocative juxtaposition for Nolasco to stage his queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Dry Wind follows the routines of a community of factory workers in the rural city of Catalão, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldn’t hesitate to call themselves “discreet” always seems to be happening or about to happen. These torrid trysts mostly take place in the woods, on bare soil or parked motorcycles, and involve piss, ass-eating, and face-spitting. Throughout, Nolasco’s frames are also filled with much hair—hairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the men’s local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolasco’s hyper-stylized aesthetics. The film’s drama lies in the decidedly Brazilian-ness of the arid landscape, the provincial accents, and the scruffy faces framed by a mishmash of international visual references whenever horny bodies escape to act out queer desire: from Tom of Finland to Tom de Pékin, from Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Querelle.
Nolasco alternates between explicitly sexual, neon-colored sequences that veer toward complete dreamscapes and the kind of European-film-festival-courting realism that Brazilian cinema is known for. The contrast can be quite bewildering, so much so that viewers may wish that Dry Wind would remain in the realm of reveries. Instead, Nolasco often tries to reassert Dry Wind as a film with an actual plot. In this case, it’s one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if it’s clandestine but affection must be refused for the sake of social survival. Apart from a needless plotline involving a homophobic assault, it all makes perfect sense. But the film’s most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)—who regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factory—happens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypes—the harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostess—are there to perform for Sandro and Sandro alone, in a mix of silent performance art and interactive pornography. In another moment of poetic-pornographic license, an evident nod to Alain Guiraudie’s Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo D’Avilla) with chained nipple clamps comes out of a man-made lake, ready to take Sandro into the water for an ecstatic drowning.
Significantly more comedic, Alice Júnior focuses on a trans wannabe influencer, Alice (Anne Celestino), and her perfumer of a father, Jean Genet (Emmanuel Rosset), who move from Recife to a small town in the south of Brazil. Subtlety isn’t Baroni’s aim, which is clear in the film’s social media-like sense of pace and aesthetic bells and whistles, as well as in the obvious trans metaphor built into the narrative premise. Alice and her dad have to move down south because he wants to develop a new fragrance using pine cones local to the region, whose fruit only comes out if the person blowing through the cone has discovered the pine cone’s real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the film’s initially annoying incorporation of social media language into its aesthetic, such as the emojis that pop up on the screen whenever Alice does something or other, because it mirrors the interface through which contemporary teenagers animate everyday life. But Alice Júnior visibly struggles to differentiate itself from a soap opera. The over-the-top acting (the villains speak like Cruella de Vil) is technically in line with Baroni’s animated Insta-grammar, but it becomes a problem when the film tries to tap into something other than its cute flamboyance. The film reaches for pathos only to find tinsel instead.
As fun as Alice Júnior can be, it’s at its core a typical Brazilian kids’ movie, in the vein of on-the-nose fare about enjoying life but not doing drugs that Brazilian megastar Xuxa put out in the 1980s and ‘90s, except queered by its trans protagonist and the visual language of the times. It wears its pedagogical message on its sleeve but is betrayed by a lack of substance. Alice is at once a naïve little girl yearning for her first kiss from a boy and a queer activist with an arsenal of didactic one-liners at the ready. This means some of the plot doesn’t feel credible, as Alice masters LGBTQ resistance discourse perfectly in her interactions both on and offline, but prefers pissing her pants during a class exam, which naturally becomes a viral video, than demanding her right to use the women’s restroom. At times she’s a woke warrior, and at times she’s a helpless little girl.
Alice Júnior only manages to transcend its sparkling surface in a few sequences where it pitches itself at grownups. In one, Jean Genet gets drunk with Marisa (Katia Horn), the kooky mother of one of Alice’s gay classmates, and they start being a little too honest about what they think of their own children. The social media histrionics have nothing to offer in these incredibly entertaining scenes, which finally bring the film closer to Starrbooty than Clueless. These moments are fabulous precisely because they’re unfiltered—queer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa don’t toast to their kids because they’re decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the “devilish bitch” and “dirty-mouthed trans” that they are.
NewFest runs from October 16—27.
Review: Synchronic Undermines Its Delightful Strangeness with Handholding
About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes.2
Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead built alluringly mysterious worlds in films like Resolution and The Endless. These works of horror-tinged science fiction draw the viewer in through their ambiguous relationships to traditional space and time; they’re complicated puzzles, and a good part of their fun is trying to fit the pieces together. But in their latest, Synchronic, the filmmakers do the fitting for you. About a drug that sends its users back in time for seven minutes, the film holds your hand and walks you through its chronology mazes, making what might otherwise be delightfully strange into something too pat and easy.
Steve (Anthony Mackie) is a hard-living EMT in New Orleans. It’s not unusual for him and his partner, Dennis (Jamie Dornan), to respond to drug calls, and the film opens with heroin overdoses at a flop house, shot in a long take as the camera drifts from one room or character to another, building up a sense of dizzying dread. But the calls soon start to get weirder: someone who seems to have spontaneously combusted, someone bitten at a hotel by a nonnative species of snake, and someone in pieces at the bottom of an elevator shaft.
They’re all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the past—and just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennis’s 18-year-old daughter, Brianna (Ally Ioannides), pops the drug at a party and disappears, trapped in history, a damsel in distress held captive by time itself. Conveniently, Steve has brain cancer, which has made his pineal gland unusually soft for his age; nearing death, dragging his knuckles across rock bottom, he decides to unstick himself in time and rescue his friend’s daughter. But first, though, he conducts a series of experiments to see how Synchronic actually works, explaining away the surreal with narrated video excerpts and white boards, suggesting a classroom lesson via Zoom.
Synchronic echoes Richard McGuire’s 2014 graphic novel Here and David Lowery’s 2017 film A Ghost Story, exploring a physical location by journeying across time but not space. And the Quibi-sized trips to the past are the high points of Benson and Moorhead’s latest, evocative glimpses of a long and diffuse history, from the wooly mammoths and prehistoric men of the Ice Age, to the conquistadors and bayou alligators of colonization, to the racist rednecks of the early 20th century. But the filmmakers often play these seven-minute scenes as much for laughs as wonder. “The past fucking sucks!” Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And he’s not wrong—especially for a black man in Louisiana.
Benson and Moorhead, as they did in The Endless, eventually cast off the science that sets their story in motion for the melodrama at its core. There are some gaps in logic, and some cruel manipulations (including Steve losing his dog to the vagaries of pill-induced time travel), all concessions to an underlying drama about family reunion and self-sacrifice. The film isn’t nostalgic, as it argues that the past is awful, and that the present a delicious miracle.
Cast: Anthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Ally Ioannides, Katie Aselton Director: Justin Benson, Aaron Moorhead Screenwriter: Justin Benson Distributor: Well Go USA Running Time: 96 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Review: Sound of Metal Is a Tender, Singular Portrait of Addiction
Darius Marder’s film captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be.3
“Fucked!” That’s how Michael Gira described how his hearing is after a live show in a 2015 interview with the Guardian. Admitting to not even taking the simple precaution of wearing ear plugs while playing in one of the world’s loudest bands, the Swans frontman went on to say, “It’s a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When it’s working and we’re all psychically connected and the music’s taking us over, I can’t imagine anything more exquisite.”
At the start of Darius Marder’s Sound of Metal, Ruben (Riz Ahmed), the drummer for a Swans-esque noise rock band, Blackgammon, is shown in such a state of euphoria, furiously pounding away at his drums and enraptured by the wall of sound filled out by distorted guitars and the screaming vocals of his girlfriend and bandmate, Lou (Olivia Cooke). It’s the sound of agony and ecstasy intertwined—a form of sonic transcendence that is, for Ruben, every bit as alluring as the heroin addiction that he kicked some four years earlier.
The aural assault of the band’s live shows stands in sharp contrast to Ruben and Lou’s personal life, which consists of quiet evenings dancing to soul music in their RV and waking up to health shakes and yoga. But it’s seemingly only during their performances that Ruben feels both truly alive and at peace with himself, getting his fix of the rhythmic noise that’s become his new drug of choice. So when the slight ringing in Ruben’s ears the night before turns into a dull roar, leaving all surrounding noises muffled beyond recognition, it’s not merely his professional livelihood that’s at stake, but his mental and spiritual well-being as well.
This newfound state of near-deafness thrusts Ruben suddenly into a transitional phase, and Sound of Metal is in lockstep with him, using intricate sound design to approximate his nightmare state and amplify the confusion, anger, and disorientation that grips him. Ruben’s life on the road, and thus his existence “inside the sound,” becomes a thing of the past when, at Lou’s request, he agrees to stay at a remote community for the deaf that specializes in helping recovering addicts. And it’s here that Ruben is again forced to confront his addictive tendencies. Only now he’s no longer chasing the dragon, but the chance to regain his hearing, whether through his impulsive desire to lose what remains of it by immediately returning to the stage or by holding out hope for a costly cochlear implant that, despite what he thinks, isn’t quite the guaranteed quick fix that he believes it to be.
As Ruben begins confronting his current predicament, Sound of Metal risks becoming a familiar, inspirational tale of overcoming one’s disability. But the filmmakers fill out the familiar framework of Ruben’s dilemma with an acutely detailed portrait of a deaf community headed by the serene and compassionate Joe (Paul Raci), a former addict who lost his hearing during Vietnam and firmly believes that deafness isn’t a handicap.
As the film traces Ruben’s integration into this community, and his increasing understanding of sign language, it becomes even more highly attuned to Ruben’s emotional and sensorial experiences, both in terms of his newfound physical impairment and his struggle to accept the uncertain future ahead of him. It’s a tumultuous time for Ruben, and Ahmed enlivens the character with a restless, bristling energy that constantly clashes with the sense of stillness and inner peace that Joe tries to instill in him every day. And this underlying tension between Joe’s calm and patient acceptance of reality, and all its complications, and Ruben’s undying need to return to “being inside the sound” colors the rest of the film.
Later on, Joe tells Ruben that “those moments of stillness, that place, that’s the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.” Ruben’s professed atheism deflates the religious aspect of Joe’s statement, but as the final act takes an unexpected turn and the perpetual push-pull between stillness and chaos, silence and sound that grips Ruben at every turn are pushed to their breaking point, his advice takes on a newfound eloquence. For Ruben, the song may be over, but the feedback lingers on. Sound of Metal sees the value of stillness, particularly for addicts, but it also captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be. In a way, it can be an addictive drug all its own.
Cast: Riz Ahmed, Olivia Cooke, Paul Raci, Mathieu Amalric, Lauren Ridloff, Chris Perfetti, William Xifaras, Hillary Baack, Michael Tow, Tom Kemp, Rena Maliszewski Director: Darius Marder Screenwriter: Darius Marder, Abraham Marder Distributor: Amazon Studios Running Time: 121 min Rating: R Year: 2019