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Review: Impolex

3.5

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Impolex
Photo: Impolex Productions

From its surplus-store WWII pageantry to its hot, fuzzy cinematography somehow suggestive of both Bolex and Instagram at once, Impolex is an uncommonly honest paean to millennial fecklessness. Borrowing a plot smidgen or two from Thomas Pynchon, writer-director Alex Ross Perry’s Cracker Jack prize of a premise jettisons Tyrone S. (Riley O’Bryan), a mush-mouthed pretty boy with a GI haircut and an amnesiac personality, off into an unidentifiable and interminable postwar wood on a search for twin V2 rockets (00 and 01). What purpose the WMDs themselves serve is unclear; there’s a conversation at one point about whether Tyrone is seeking rockets that have been “exploded” or not, and he answers obliquely. The task primarily provides the character with a purpose he can adopt as leisurely as possible; he commits himself to halfheartedly going through the motions of what is likely a wild goose chase while occasionally forgetting where he is and what he’s doing. When confusion capsizes his search, he tends to sing softly to himself wartime tunes to which he clearly can’t recall the lyrics.

We want quite desperately to gloss this anti-dramatic behavior within the comfortable context of stereotypical twentysomething airheadedness, to convince ourselves this is all jejune historical pranking. And, to be sure, despite the diagetic absence of marijuana or acid, a handful of countercultural motifs threaten to simplify the stately sedateness as medicinally induced. Among the likely imaginary sages that appear before Tyrone on his trek, for example, is a ruddy-bearded, eye-patch-wearing demi-hippie, hilariously called “Adrian the Pirate” (Bruno Meyrick Jones) in the press notes. (Tyrone’s chats with him form lyrically illogical smoke circles: “I’m not worried about finding the rockets,” Tyrone tells him prosaically. “I’m worried about finding lots of rockets, and my rockets getting mixed up with all these other lesser rockets.”) Tyrone also occasionally encounters a girlfriend (Kate Lyn Sheil) that he thought he left behind in the States—she’s the spontaneously teleporting Penelope to his rudderless Odysseus—who displays a suspicious interest in/knowledge of the loose leafs stamped “Classified” that he lugs around with him. Okay, so the rocket science is perhaps the Gmail account of the 1940s, full of hopeless dead-ends and effusive indulgences, and the shamanic lover represents the fear of being hacked and exposed while paradoxically desiring the intimate unmasking such an invasion would constitute?

The problem with this interpretation, and with any interpretation we could hobble together from the film’s dizzing cues, is that the narrative doesn’t validate our diagnostic agency any more than it does the motivation of its protagonist; it lulls us into its reckless passivity to the point that even the comedic duds possess a languid hint of funny. (Tyrone’s piggy-nose shtick is second-rate Steve Martin, but befits the atmosphere of “fuck it” that the movie steadily maintains; the lysergic, fire-licked opening feels equally vapid, but retrospectively becomes a kind of purposeful faux-poetry.) Adopting a peripatetic rhythm like that of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s paraplegic-obsessed debut Fando y Lis, Impolex‘s blasé approach to its weird happenings melts from a dumb joke into an opaque comment on talentlessness.

Tyrone can’t find rockets (he locates one, then loses it), he can’t communicate properly with the various people he meets in his travels, and he can’t emote to save his life. He delivers lines alternately to the floor and the firmament, and his attempts to assert himself are both flat and gawky. At one point in an argument with a vague, muscular competitor in the rocket search, his nemesis cryptically remarks, “I’ve already found what I’m looking for.” The intended passive-aggressiveness of Tyrone’s retort dribbles out of his mouth, freeze-dried and sterile: “Oh. And. What. Might. That. Be.”

In another admittedly gut-busting sequence, he becomes so exasperated with the one rocket he’s been able to retrieve (a large, obviously plastic retro totem) that he pummels it against the side of a hill until growing fatigued and heaving himself downward to spoon with the warhead. Tyrone’s ineptness is such that he unwittingly mistakes the phallic object of the 20th century for a noisome, maybe even lightly feminine, irritant, like the pawned-off purse of a significant other that can shift all-too-easily from publicly embarrassing to sexily yonic. Slim Pickens put the bomb where it belonged; it became his manhood. To call Tyrone castrated by comparison is both grossly reductive and too violent: Impolex isn’t about a man who can’t find his dick so much as it is an internalization of the problematic dick semiotics of today’s young adults. If everything’s a blithe dick joke then where does that leave the male psyche?

What’s left in its place is inert, to be sure, but Impolex ekes out stirring whispers of tender masculine grief. When Tyrone befriends an Anglophonic octopus (voiced by comic Eugene Mirman) with a charming, inflating/deflating head-bulb, he confesses envy for the social credibility of the man who made seersucker fashionable. (He then recounts a mangled, mythic shaggy-dog tale about the gentleman’s colorful appearance at a party, much to the delight of the cephalopod.) And in the lengthy, relationship-oriented conversation of a finale, where the girlfriend laughably attempts to gain some rhetorical control over the madness we’ve just witnessed, Tyrone’s inane bumbling is understood as a kind of emotional nakedness. He sips a stemless glass of red wine and waxes romantic over a memory of watching his lover swim at a beach. Tyrone, like most Millenials, can be mushily nostalgic. But any sentimentality is swaddled in deadly serious—rather than ironic—numbness. While provoking him to reminisce, the girlfriend asks: “Do you remember that time you took me to the beach?” Despite the piddles of reverence and regret to follow after the floodgates of remembrance are pried open, he scratches his head and blinks, saying, “You’re going to have to be more specific.”

Cast: Riley O'Bryan, Kate Lyn Sheil, Bruno Meyrick Jones, Ben Shapiro, Roy Berkeley, Eugene Mirman Director: Alex Ross Perry Screenwriter: Alex Ross Perry Running Time: 73 min Rating: R Year: 2009

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Review: M. Night Shyamalan’s Glass Is Less Than Half Empty

M. Night Shyamalan’s film is aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.

2

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Glass
Photo: Universal Pictures

What a difference nearly two decades makes. When writer-director M. Night Shyamalan released Unbreakable way back in 2000, the superhero genre was hardly the mass-cultural malady that it is today. An oddball take on caped crusaders and the like had a better chance of standing out in theaters, and Unbreakable was certainly one of the more eccentric uses of $75 million Hollywood studio dollars.

Shyamalan’s tale of a Philadelphia security guard, David Dunn (Bruce Willis), who, after surviving a devastating train crash, discovers he has inhuman strength and a psychic ability to predict danger, was photographed in languorous long takes, with most dialogue spoken barely above a whisper. Unbreakable was really more of a slow-burning family relationship drama—especially between Dunn and his hero-worshipping son, Joseph (Spencer Treat Clark)—than it was a men-in-tights, or, in this case, man-in-rain-slicker action flick. But a cartoonishly clothed Samuel L. Jackson did often pop up as a brittle-boned character named Elijah Price, who pontificated about comic books as if they were a socio-cultural Rosetta Stone.

In one of his patented, P.T. Barnum-esque twist endings, Shyamalan revealed that Price fancied himself Dunn’s brainiac archnemesis. “They called me Mr. Glass,” he says of his childhood torturers. And so the stage was set for a future showdown, though lower box-office receipts than expected appeared to put the kibosh on that. But now here we are with the frivolous and protracted Glass, which finally pits Dunn and Glass against each other. Though there’s one other person involved…or perhaps we should say multiple people in one.

That would be Kevin Wendell Crumb (James McAvoy), the dissociative identity-afflicted villain known as The Horde, who was first introduced in Shyamalan’s 2016 hit, and stealth Unbreakable sequel, Split. McAvoy is once again the whole show here, with the actor receiving top billing over his co-stars. He shares several scenes with Split’s damaged final girl, Casey (Anya Taylor-Joy), and he leans full-tilt into The Horde’s various personalities. Among these interior others are prim British matriarch Patricia; nine-year-old dance freak/Drake fanboy Hedwig; macho sexual deviant Dennis; and a cannibalistic savage known only as The Beast, who’s as close to a Big Bad as the film gets. McAvoy’s energy and go-for-brokeness is infectious, and it’s something Glass could use a whole lot more of.

The film’s first 20 minutes or so put Dunn, now nicknamed The Overseer, and Crumb on a collision course that eventually lands them in the same mental hospital where Glass is incarcerated. The trio’s physician is Dr. Ellie Staple (Sarah Paulson, seemingly rehearsing for her eventual role as Nurse Ratched in Ryan Murphy’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel), an icy unbeliever, so she says, in anything superheroic. It’s Staple’s goal to talk her three charges into renouncing their phenomenal powers. And talk. And talk. And talk.

Much of Glass’s running time is given over to therapy sessions in which Crumb cycles through his personas, Dunn looks alternately befuddled and constipated, and Glass lolls his Frederick Douglass-coiffed head to the side in drooling catatonia. (Is he faking his unresponsiveness? What do you think?) He’s barely the star of his own film, though Shyamalan has said in interviews that Glass is meant to reflect the character’s fragile, erudite nature, as Unbreakable did Dunn’s reluctant heroism and Split did Crumb’s anything-goes psychosis.

There’s a certain clinical elegance to the crisp digital cinematography by Mike Gioulakis, much in keeping with Glass’s eye-catching, purple-accented wardrobe (love that monogrammed cravat!). It’s telling, however, that the most striking scenes here are flashbacks to the Eduardo Serra-shot Unbreakable. This includes a terrifying deleted scene from that film in which a young Elijah Price (Johnny Hiram Jamison) rides an amusement park Tilt-A-Whirl, with bone-shattering results and to the palpable distress of his mother, played by Charlayne Woodard. She reprises her role, as Clark does Dunn’s now-grown son, in Glass’s present-day scenes.

A bigger issue is that the film’s earnest deconstruction of comic-book mythology seems antiquated given our present glut of superhero media. It’s no longer a genre to be elevated since it has become the norm. Plus, the unintentionally hilarious way that Paulson says, “Have you ever been to a comic book convention?” is one of several signposts suggesting that Shyamalan’s geek cred is about, say, 20 years behind the times.

It certainly might have helped if Shyamalan were able to more humorously poke at his own pretenses. The wet-noodle climax in which all of Glass’s characters have a staggeringly non-epochal confrontation in a friggin’ parking lot could only have benefitted from a sense that the stars and the multi-hyphenate auteur were enjoying themselves. It’s only too appropriate that Jackson’s Glass sternly narrates this skeletally smack-a-doo finale as if he was a distressed academic lecturing attention-starved stoners.

Perhaps genuine fun is too much to ask from an artist who once wrote a po-faced tome about closing America’s education gap (put “I Got Schooled” into Google and delight, such as it is). There’s also another twist or two on the horizon, though it gives nothing away to say that the reveals amount to little more than “the real superhero…was mankind.” In the end, Glass proves to be another of Shyamalan’s pompous sermons about faith in oneself, aimed at an audience from whom he cringingly craves fealty.

Cast: James McAvoy, Bruce Willis, Samuel L. Jackson, Sarah Paulson, Anya Taylor-Joy, Spencer Treat Clark, Charlayne Woodard Director: M. Night Shyamalan Screenwriter: M. Night Shyamalan Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 129 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019

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Review: An Acceptable Loss Is a Morally Urgent B Movie

The film is a cynical critique of American foreign policy wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills.

2.5

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An Acceptable Loss
Photo: IFC Films

Writer-director Joe Chappelle’s An Acceptable Loss is a B movie with a morally urgent message, a cynical critique of American foreign policy in the Middle East wrapped up in an uncluttered narrative that thrives on pulpy thrills. By positioning the U.S. government as the film’s primary antagonist, Chappelle takes to task the repeated killing of innocent lives as collateral damage in the hunt for terrorists and other ostensible enemies.

The ethical quandary that arises from such an operation is embodied by Elizabeth “Libby” Lamm (Tika Sumpter), a former national security adviser to Vice President Rachel Burke (Jamie Lee Curtis) who’s taken a teaching gig at a Chicago university. As Libby secretly transcribes her experiences, and faces civilians who are angry over her role in a controversial military operation in Syria, Chappelle shows a surprising empathy for the character. The filmmaker outlines that Libby’s memorializing of her experiences and her honest attempt at assimilating within a society that more or less shuns her is borne out of feelings of regret.

But An Acceptable Loss’s compelling take on moral reckoning is compromised by the distracting presence of Martin (Ben Tavassoli), a grad student who consistently exposes lapses in the storyline’s logic. Martin mysteriously stalks Libby and sets up an elaborate surveillance system in her house, but it’s never explained how Martin can operate with the skill, knowledge, and proficiency of some kind of intelligence officer. Dubiously, when Libby and Martin need each other’s help in a moment of crisis, the film oddly passes on holding the latter’s disturbingly voyeuristic behavior accountable; Libby shakes her head, and then the film drops the matter completely. For a film eager to ponder the ethics of people’s actions, it comes off as strange that Chappelle doesn’t scrutinize Martin’s own.

Still, it’s difficult not to get swept up in An Acceptable Loss’s technical virtuosity. The film’s propulsive narrative is nothing if not efficient, aided in no small part by crisp editing that relishes the fine art of cross-cutting. The dark interiors that Chappelle favors create a Tourneur-like atmosphere of dread that subsumes Libby, underlining the covert nature of her documenting her secrets; even scenes in daylight have a strangely nocturnal feel to them. This visual style complements An Acceptable Loss’s pessimistic view of America’s foreign policy, which is sustained right up to the film’s hopeful coda. The film shows that if policy is to change, it greatly helps to be supported by people like Libby, someone who had been complicit in committing atrocities but ultimately embraced her humanity.

Cast: Tika Sumpter, Ben Tavassoli, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jeff Hephner, Alex Weisman, Clarke Peters Director: Joe Chappelle Screenwriter: Joe Chappelle Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2018

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Review: The Heiresses Is a Contemplative Look at Class

Ana Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Marcelo Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it.

3.0

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The Heiresses
Photo: Distrib Films US

In writer-director Marcelo Martinessi’s The Heiresses, middle-aged lesbian couple Chela (Ana Brun) and Chiquita (Margarita Irún) live together in a bourgeois household with only the leftovers of its former grandeur. The house and its furnishings, Chela’s inheritance from her parents, have a dated, hand-me-down quality, and the couple is gradually selling off the expensive furniture and china to pay for Chiquita’s debts. The emptying of the house of Chela’s possessions reflects the greater emptiness that Martinessi makes the audience feel in the space, where hardly anybody but the couple appears, and where the lights seem to always be off, presumably to save money.

But selling off Chela’s inheritance is to no avail, and Chiquita ends up in what’s essentially a debtor’s prison (the bank she owes money to charges her with fraud). Chiquita had been the dominant personality in their relationship, and after she’s sent to prison Chela finds herself in an even emptier house, without much to do. When an elderly neighbor, Pituca (Maria Martins), asks her for a ride one day, and insists on paying her for it, Chela finds a new vocation, becoming a kind of unofficial chauffeur to the neighborhood’s still-wealthy ladies. Although she doesn’t have a license, she begins driving Pituca and her friends around the city, picking up a regular gig driving the younger Angy (Ana Ivanova) to visit her ill mother. Initially flummoxed by the way she has fallen from her bourgeois indolence into a working-class job, Chela begins to embrace the relative freedom offered by driving, as well as the independence her bourgeoning relationships with the other women give her from Chiquita.

Martinessi cites Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant as his inspiration for the film, but The Heiresses has little of Fassbinder’s grandiose flair. This film’s characters spend more time staring contemplatively off screen than they do erupting into sudden emotional outbursts, for example, and Martinessi doesn’t accentuate the superficiality of Chela’s bourgeois home by arranging a literally glittering mise-en-scène, as Fassbinder might have done. Instead, Martinessi’s images are rather static and quite dark, relying on the natural lighting of the dimly lit house and Chela’s cramped Mercedes, the two places where most of The Heiresses’s scenes take place. The result is a film that’s more grounded—and more stylistically pared down—than Fassbinder’s performative melodramas.

In other ways, however, The Heiresses does recall Fassbinder’s drama of failed domesticity. In their shared home, Chela and Chiquita are surrounded by the signs of a disintegrating upper-middle-class patriarchy, represented in the ornaments of wealth Chela identifies as coming from her father. And like Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant, though patriarchy is a structuring absence in The Heiresses, Martinessi’s film is overwhelmingly female: Angy has an ex-boyfriend who appears in the background of a couple shots, but no man’s face is seen throughout the entire film. While The Heiresses presents an almost exclusively female world, it uses very few exterior shots, communicating a feeling of confinement—most literally in those scenes in which Chela visits Chiquita in the women’s prison.

This sense of confinement reflects on Chela personally, as well as on the women in the film more broadly. As the nouveau riche come to look over her possessions, Chela spies on them through a cracked-open door. Martinessi presents these scenes from Chela’s voyeuristic point of view, reflecting her isolation and trepidation in relation to the outside world: She’s ashamed to now be reliant on selling her family’s possessions, but she’s also afraid of making contact with anyone outside of her and Chiquita’s world.

At times, paradoxically, the visual and dramatic quietude of The Heiresses feels a bit excessive, but Brun’s performance as Chela anchors our attention where Martinessi’s understated visuals might otherwise lose it. In downward glances and semi-dazed glares, she captures a character who at once is overwhelmed by her new circumstances and emotionally shields herself from them. Slowly and ambivalently, Chela finds a sense of self apart from her overbearing partner and the legacy of her father—breaking away from, rather than merely avoiding, her oppressive circumstances.

Cast: Ana Brun, Margarite Irún, Ana Ivanova, Maria Martins, Nilda González, Alicia Guerra Director: Marcelo Martinessi Screenwriter: Marcelo Martinessi Distributor: Distrib Films US Running Time: 98 min Rating: NR Year: 2019

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