Tim Story’s Ride Along 2 feeds directly into my working theory that junk movies take all their chances in the first reels before settling into the tranquilizing monotony of mediocrity on the tail end. The first few set pieces of this sequel few were clamoring for feel like they came from a fake movie, or an extended but unresolved Funny or Die skit. But the longer the buddy-cop antics of soon-to-be brothers-in-law Ben Barber (Kevin Hart) and James Payton (Ice Cube) trudge mirthfully forth, the more streamlined and normalized the movie gets. Honest bad movies at least hold the possibility of carrying viewers along when they’re caught up in disbelief by what they’re witnessing. Ride Along 2, which sows its wild oats and then settle for unexceptional cinematic domestication, are content to aim for total neutrality.
Hart and Cube are, respectively, messily enthusiastic and stripped entirely of anything approaching charisma. The formula calls for yin to run circles around yang, but that only works when both players are equally committed to the scenario. Cube looks embarrassed to be caught cashing his check here, while Hart conspicuously makes it rain. As our continuing saga of mad cop/manic cop picks up, Ben is now a real-deal cop, working tangentially alongside James even though the Atlanta P.D. clearly sees him as a charity case, to be patted on the head and sent pushing pencils at the earliest opportunity. When James stumbles on a flash drive indicating that the latest pusher he’s apprehended might be attached to something far larger in scope going down in Miami, his sister, who’s improbably engaged to Ben, begs James to take his future brother-in-law with him to crack the case, but be back by the end of the week for the wedding. Because that’s how quickly and safely multi-billion-dollar crime rings are typically brought down.
Ride Along 2’s frontloaded structure provides exactly one reflexively enjoyable action sequence. As Ben and James wind up pursued by assertive hitmen in a Miami Beach car chase, Ben draws on his extensive reserve of Xbox reflexes, visualizing their entire dash as a mission sequence from a Grand Theft Auto-style game, up to and including James in the next seat over, depicted a few too many steps below Uncanny Valley. But as the pair, working in tandem with attractive and conveniently single Miami homicide detective Maya Cruz (Olivia Munn), get closer and closer to their mark, the movie seems to deliberately scale back its own stake in the action. Like any serving of junk food, Ride Along 2 seems engineered to give you that initial rush of satisfaction, but leaves you in a dead zone where the only thing you want is more of the same.
Cast: Ice Cube, Kevin Hart, Tika Sumpter, Benjamin Bratt, Olivia Munn, Ken Jeong, Bruce McGill, Michael Rose, Sherri Shepherd Director: Tim Story Screenwriter: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 101 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: I Carry You with Me Turns a Gay Couple’s Search for Freedom into a PSA
Heidi Ewing’s tale of immigration and deportation afflicting the lives of a Mexican gay couple flashes its reason for being at every turn.1.5
Across I Carry You with Me, director and co-screenwriter Heidi Ewing devotes herself to championing a cause above all else. Which is to say, she doesn’t attest to a belief in cinema as art of nuance and ambiguity. Hers is a kind of pedagogical, if not exactly activist, filmmaking style that’s not without its commendable intentions or political urgency, but it ends up feeling like a one-dimensional PSA. Ewing’s tale of immigration and deportation afflicting the lives of a Mexican gay couple flashes its reason for being at every turn, robbing the spectator of the experience of doubt—of wandering and of wonder.
In their native Mexico, Iván (Armando Espitia) and Gerardo’s (Christian Vazquez) romantic relationship is under the constant threat of the surveilling, homophobic gaze of others—strangers or relatives who seem to always be about to catch them red-handed. Their world is divided into those who know that they’re gay and those who don’t. Iván in particular is still stuck in the paranoid position of the queer child whose gender-nonconforming pleasures can only be experienced clandestinely, plagued by the anxiety that his father will come home too soon. It’s a state of being that’s obviously too asphyxiating for the aspiring chef, which leads him to migrate illegally to the United States, even if it means leaving Gerardo behind, in the hopes that the American dream will bring him financial and emotional peace.
The irony is that once he makes it to America after a harrowing journey alongside his childhood best friend, Sandra (Michelle Rodríguez), his life there, too, is caught between those who know and those who don’t—in this case, that he’s an illegal immigrant. It’s a clever concept in theory, but instead of allowing for the specificity of her characters’ predicaments to seep into the story—surreptitiously, poetically—Ewing is committed above all else to sentimentalizing Iván and Gerardo’s separation. As a result, I Carry You with Me is reduced to a topical film that asks the audience for one thing and one thing only: a sort of empathy toward illegal immigrants that they surely already had from the start.
Less certain is the form that Ewing has chosen to tell her story, as I Carry You with Me adopts a documentary realist approach in its final third, revealing that everything up to this point as a fictionalized tribute to the immigrant story of two of her close friends, an acclaimed New York City chef and his partner. During this stretch, the film employs a shakier camera in an attempt to embody the raw urgency of the subject matter. This is in sharp contrast to the scenes set back in Puebla that follow a rather traditional and unobtrusive aesthetic paradigm, with the filmmaker going through events in an overtly pragmatic fashion instead of allowing affect to simmer. The camera never quite lingers to observe a space or a character’s face, which is a rather defeating proposition for a film so hellbent on humanizing a cause.
Perhaps inevitably, this approach reduces Iván and Gerardo’s life in Mexico to the tropes to queer victimhood: the sissy boy whose father catches him wearing make-up and teaches him a lesson so he can become a “real man,” the gay couple who’s attacked by rowdy straight men on an empty street. Iván and Gerardo are flattened into spokespeople for a preconceived idea that’s imposed on us instead of richly developed—that is, whether the most suffocating closet is the one where you live in the shadows as an illegal immigrant or as queer person afraid of being outed. By the time Ewing changes aesthetic course in the end, the rawness of the filmic style feels contrived and unearned, unable to retroactively grant lifeblood into archetypes.
Cast: Armando Espitia, Christian Vazquez, Michelle Rodríguez, Ángeles Cruz, Raúl Briones, Arcelia Ramírez Director: Heidi Ewing Screenwriter: Heidi Ewing, Alan Page Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics Running Time: 86 min Rating: R Year: 2020
The Best Horror Movies on Hulu Right Now
Just in time for Halloween, a list of our favorite films currently streaming on Hulu.
Ever since audiences ran screaming from the premiere of Auguste and Louis Lumière’s 1895 short black-and-white silent documentary Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat, the histories of filmgoing and horror have been inextricably intertwined. Through the decades—and subsequent crazes for color and sound, stereoscopy and anamorphosis—since that train threatened to barrel into the front row, there’s never been a time when audiences didn’t clamor for the palpating fingers of fear. Horror films remain perennially popular, despite periodic (and always exaggerated) rumors of their demise, even in the face of steadily declining ticket sales and desperately shifting models of distribution.
Into the new millennium, horror films have retained their power to shock and outrage by continuing to plumb our deepest primordial terrors and incarnate our sickest, most socially unpalatable fantasies. They are, in what amounts to a particularly delicious irony, a “safe space” in which we can explore these otherwise unfathomable facets of our true selves, while yet consoling ourselves with the knowledge that “it’s only a movie.”
At the same time, the genre manages to find fresh and powerful metaphors for where we’re at as a society and how we endure fractious, fearful times. For every eviscerated remake or toothless throwback, there’s a startlingly fresh take on the genre’s most time-honored tropes; for every milquetoast PG-13 compromise, there’s a ferocious take-no-prisoners attempt to push the envelope on what we can honestly say about ourselves. And some of our favorites are currently streaming on Hulu. Budd Wilkins
10. The Quiet Ones (John Pogue, 2019)
John Pogue is an elegant framer of even the most mundane action, orchestrating the film’s consistently chilly unease from a series of unassuming jolts embedded in the humdrum. From a radiator that blows its top to a van door that gently opens after the professor and his troops walk into a manse-cum-research-facility in the country upon being evicted from their rooms at Oxford, coincidence is creepily propped up as the film’s possible Big Bad. Though The Quiet Ones plods when its focus shifts to the walking vanilla pudding pop played by Sam Claflin and the sleuthing that leads him to one last obligatory reveal, there’s a certain cunning to the finale’s fiery staging as a coming-out story of sorts. Paralleling an earlier scene in which Krissi (Erin Richards) calls out Oxford professor Joseph Coupland (Jared Harris) for his misogyny, as if speaking for every woman in the Hammer Films canon, the film torches the sexist notion that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, correlating self-acceptance with the severity of Evey’s hauntings and propping up its horrors as a selfless expression of a once-invisible girl’s sense of agency. Ed Gonzalez
9. Crawl (Alexandre Aja, 2019)
Unlike the giddily crass Piranha 3D, Alexandre Aja’s Crawl is a quiet beast of a film. It’s built not on a foundation of over-the-top gore, but on a series of escalations. As a hurricane barrels toward Florida, ace swimmer Haley (Kaya Scodelario) becomes worried after her father, Dave (Barry Pepper), doesn’t return her phone calls. She travels to her old family home and finds him unconscious in the house’s flooded crawl space, with large alligators swimming in the water. Early on, the camera often lingers on the deceptive stillness of the rising water for maximum suspense. Haley and her father are trapped in the house with no more than the tools they can find or already have on hand, MacGyvering their very survival out of shovels, flashlights, and flares. The best parts of the film slyly set up those tools and other objects, including a swing set and a rat trap, only to bring them back at some later, climactic moment. Steven Scaife
8. Hellraiser (Clive Barker, 1987)
Clive Barker’s fervid imagination has always lingered fascinatedly at the intersection of splattery violence and transgressive sexuality. The Hellraiser films certainly never stint on graphic displays of the former, even if the latter receives increasingly short shrift after the kinky family dysfunction that undergirds the first installment. The first film is essentially a psychosexual chamber play—limited on the whole to a single location occupied by a handful of characters—that abounds in barely concealed domestic fissures and incipient amorous betrayals, not to mention some live human flaying thrown in for gruesome measure: Think Strindberg by way of Lucio Fulci. From the outset, Barker plays up the cultural and temperamental divide between American “innocent abroad” Larry Cotton (Andrew Robinson) and his icily beautiful British wife, Julia (Clare Higgins); and tensions only tauten once Larry’s grown daughter, Kirsty (Ashely Laurence), enters the scene. The revelation via flashback of Julia’s liaison with Larry’s bad-boy brother, Frank (Sean Chapman), adds the final twist to these tangled affairs. Wilkins
7. Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (Jalmari Helander, 2010)
Santa is one bad mamma jamma in Writer-director Jalmari Helander’s Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, a yuletide fable that’s equal parts sincere, silly, and scary. Helander’s direction is assured in a manner that inspires flattering comparisons: his softly lit scenes of adolescent fear and fantasy, and of father-son estrangement, recall early Spielberg; Pietari’s (Onni Tommila) trinket-adorned room and makeshift alarm clock (involving keys, sweater thread and a basin) resembles Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s whimsies; his compassionate black comedy evokes Joe Dante’s work; and his eerie snowbound setting and premise harkens back to John Carpenter’s The Thing. This last comparison is also apt in terms of aesthetics, as Helander and cinematographer Mika Orasmaa’s widescreen compositions capture a sense of unsettling scale and unseen terror as well as, in domestic sequences, a warmth and intimacy that helps compensate for somewhat sketchy characters. Nick Schager
6. The Devil’s Rejects (Rob Zombie, 2005)
Rife with reverential references to, as well as imbued with the spirit of, its genre forbears, The Devil’s Rejects is a delicious Southern stew of ghoulish grisliness, bleak humor, and unrepentant amorality. Schlock rocker-turned-auteur Rob Zombie exhibits a newfound directorial maturity and muscularity with this gonzo grindhouse-western exploitation flick about the battle between House of 1,000 Corpses serial-killing clan—Otis (Bill Mosely) and Baby (Sheri Moon Zombie) and their clown father Captain Spaulding (Sid Haig)—and a vigilante sheriff (William Forsythe) who constantly talks about the “cleansing of the wicked” and instilling the wrath of the Lord into everyone’s asses. Equally ferocious and funny, the metalhead moviemaker’s cinematic sick joke is a gory blast, from the balls-to-the-wall chaos of its “Midnight Rider” opening to the down-in-blazes opera of its “Freebird” finale. Schager
5. Depraved (Larry Fessenden, 2019)
What does a Frankenstein figure look like in 2019? According to Larry Fessenden’s Depraved, he’s a guy with war-addled, once-noble intentions set adrift by male ego and shady benefactors. He’s a white man grasping for control in a world coming apart, a cog in a machine who hasn’t broken free so much as changed the machine’s function—from that of war to that of the pharmaceutical industry. The film, Fessenden’s first feature as both writer and director since 2006’s The Last Winter, paints multiple psychological portraits that are sad, angry, and strangely beautiful. It shows us the mind of not just PTSD-afflicted field surgeon Henry (David Call), but also that of his prototypical sewn-together “monster,” Adam (Alex Breaux), and his assistant and Big Pharma bankroller, Polidori (Joshua Leonard). Throughout, the film it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. He diagnoses the rot of our era through these solipsistic men that pour their prejudices and their insecurities into Adam, an open book eventually read back to its authors with a violence they cultivated themselves. Scaife
4. Mom and Dad (Brian Taylor, 2017)
Writer-director Brian Taylor’s Mom and Dad invests a hoary conceit with disturbing and hilarious lunacy. Unfolding over the course of a long day, the film follows parents as they’re driven to kill their children in a mass outbreak of violence. Doubling down on the horror genre’s propensity for chaos, Taylor eliminates the gradual escalation that characterizes the average thriller. There’s no sense of benevolent normalcy in Mom and Dad, or of a control state that’s to be eventually restored or at least fought for. The filmmaker suggests that casual hostility within the family unit is the real normal, buried underneath an ornate series of social pretenses. Photographed by Daniel Pearl, who fashioned the sun-cracked landscapes of Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, the film’s images have a similarly gritty sense of overexposure. The editing fuses multiple timelines while parodying the internet-surfing ADD of the modern world, propelling the narrative forward while fostering a tone of cheeky debauchment. Taylor stages violence with an unmooring sense of bodily concussion—which is rendered all the more disturbing by the film’s nasty comic streak. Chuck Bowen
3. Blade II (Guillermo del Toro, 2002)
Stephen Norrington’s Blade offered a techno-hungry nosedive into a sultry vampire bloodbath. Blade is the pimp daddy of all comic book heroes, an African-American superman trying to save humanity from a vampire apocalypse. With Blade II, horror maestro Guillermo del Toro morphs allows the titular vampire hunter into the king of all insects. Even when del Toro is under studio control, there’s no suppressing his spiritual, entomological freaky-deakyness. The director has become a tortured lover of myths. He’s the fallen Catholic easily enamored by the stained-glass worldview of fairy-tale empires at the brink of destruction. In Blade II, signature del Toro obsessions are on fierce display: a monarch’s fear of aging, his incessant desire to suspend time, and his messianic opponent’s own conflicted sense of past and future. In the film, del Toro places less emphasis on the decadence of the vampire lifestyle than he does on the societal effects of its widening plague. Luke Goss’s Nomak asks in one scene: “Is the enemy of my enemy my friend?” What first seems like a cut-and-dry moral dilemma becomes an awesome, cautionary tale against cultural homogenization. Gonzalez
2. The Host (Bong Joon-ho, 2006)
Scott Wilson’s deliciously hammy presence as the American captain in the opening scene indicates that Bong Joon-ho’s The Host is, in the broadest sense, a politically charged diatribe against both American and Korean political cover-up machinations of misinformation. But that aspect is rather bland in comparison to what else the film has to offer. For, like any great monster movie, this isn’t a film strictly about a monster—or, for that matter, the monstrous countries that spawned it—but about something else: the significance of sustenance. That is, The Host is a film chiefly concerned with food: who, how, and where we get it from, what it is we choose to eat, and why we eat it at all. Ryland Walker Knight
1. The Tenant (Roman Polanski, 1976)
The masterful final panel in Roman Polanski’s remarkable “Apartment Trilogy,” The Tenant surpasses even Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby in its portrayal of claustrophobia and dissipating sanity. Casting himself as Trelkovsky, a meek Polish wanderer whose new Paris residence comes equipped with sinister neighbors, mysterious hieroglyphs, and mystical intimations, the great director employs a comically escalating sense of dread to crystallize a worldview in which weaklings and barbarians jostle for power and everyone is an outsider, as powerless against bullying as they are to helping the suffering of others. A master class in ominous, insinuating mise-en-scène, this is the ultimate Polanski skin-crawler and one of cinema’s supreme paranoid fantasias. Fernando Croce
Review: Hopper/Welles Is an Electric Clash of Titans Over Cinema and Mythmaking
Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper both understand that cinema’s inherent fakeness is the wellspring of its importance and its danger.3.5
Composed of recently unearthed footage, Hopper/Welles features at its center a matchup that abounds in irresistible contrasts and symmetries. Shot in 1970, the footage documents a night when Orson Welles met Dennis Hopper in Los Angeles for a dinner that was intended as research for Welles’s passion project, The Other Side of the Wind. Hot off the success of his directorial debut, Easy Rider, Hopper was in Taos, New Mexico, editing The Last Movie. He was the face of the countercultural while at the forefront of a new auteur-forward movement in American cinema—the latter a status Welles enjoyed nearly 30 years earlier with his own directorial debut, Citizen Kane. So, in effect, Hopper/Welles allows us to see the past and then-present faces of vanguard cinema who’re united by their formal adventurousness and divided by personal style as well as, possibly, political orientation.
Artistically, Welles was every inch the rebel and iconoclast as Hopper, yet his richly musical voice and erudition fostered an impression of an establishment type, while Hopper, bearded, scraggly, clad in a cowboy hat, suggests a blend of outlaw and sensitive soul in the mold of Sam Shepard, only with a subtler strand of machismo. It’s evident early on that these various contrasts turn Welles on in Hopper/Welles. The film that would eventually arise out of The Other Side of the Wind, decades later, is a slipstream masterpiece about the relationship between classical and counterculture cinema, utilizing these poles as symbols to ponder the true possibility for revolution at a time when America, in the throes of the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement, was seemingly as close to the breaking point as it now.
Welles sees cinema, regardless of generation and political purview, as a game and an escape—a bourgeois toy that affirms our lives emotionally while taking us further from reality. And so the “reality” of The Other Side of the Wind dissolves in front of us, leaving us with haunting shards of poetry that somehow indicate the inner lives that don’t quite arise to the foreground. Welles got the heart of counterculture cinema, which is also concerned with the frail, illusive spectrum of reality, informing it with his exhilarating rococo compositions and kaleidoscopic editing syntax. The frailty of reality, of American myths, is also very much the concern of Hopper’s equally ambitious and extraordinary The Last Movie.
That alignment gives Hopper/Welles a punch that it might not have had if seen in 1970, before either The Last Movie or The Other Side of the Wind were finished. The film catches these icons as they’re fashioning similarly demanding and auto-critical movies that would both be doomed in their creators’ own respective lifetimes, before eventually undergoing critical reevaluation and release. Here, Hopper seems to know on a certain level that The Last Movie is going to be misunderstood and subsequently end his romance with Hollywood, and he partially seems to yearn for that reaction. Early in Hopper/Welles, Hopper offers an astonishingly accurate summary of his intentions with The Last Movie to Welles, which is both vague and eerily acute like the film itself. Hopper talks of detonating various American myths and seeking to distance audiences from his plot with the movie-within-a-movie framework. He also speaks of American naïveté and the magic of the Peruvian tribespeople, which leads to a debate between Hopper and Welles on the differences between tribes’ magic and studio magic that cuts to the heart of the obsessions driving each man’s showmanship.
As in Easy Rider and The Last Movie, Hopper is torn between lionizing and deconstructing the lure of cinema. He loves the films of Michelangelo Antonioni and Luis Buñuel and also frequently refers to global art cinema in general, drawn to the potentialities of cinema to render banal actions experientially profound to a mass audience—an idea to which Welles, who prefers a traditional narrative, is puckishly resistant. (Hopper praises the simplicity of a moment in Last Year at Marienbad, to which Welles replies that he can’t imagine anything much simpler than the Alain Resnais film.) Hopper’s grappling with his various dueling intentions and beliefs—between the intentions of cinema and his feelings about his country—come to embody the conflicts that plague many of us who wrestle with both complacent and revolutionary tendencies. For most of us, the former impulses win out hands down.
Much of Hopper/Welles is an intense bullshit session set in a cavernous room, with Hopper downing tall gin and tonics and chainsmoking Marlboros. A few attractive women sit at the sidelines, seemingly to further stimulate him, while Welles is entirely off screen, his voice cajoling, kidding, challenging, and directing his subject. This film is itself a riff on the divide between mythology and reality, as Welles sometimes assumes the personality of Jake Hannaford, the fictional film director played in The Other Side of the Wind by John Huston, while Hopper makes an art of dropping slippery quasi-bromides that he often reverses when Welles boxes him into a corner. This gamesmanship leads to startling moments. The left-wing Welles, as Hannaford, endorses fascism, while Hopper casually admits that his fraught childhood in Kansas with his mother was partially rooted in his wanting to sleep with her.
Finally, the master subject of Hopper/Welles arises, which is Welles’s obsession with Hopper’s politics as they relate to his blossoming career as a film director. Hopper, who would eventually become conservative, is clearly troubled by his country yet hesitant to spell his convictions out. Hopper claims to fear that the F.B.I. will persecute him, reminding Welles of the McCarthy hearings, while Welles in turn reminds Hopper that he himself endorsed leftist politics with no recourse. Hopper’s paranoia often feels like a game. One assumes that Hopper actually wishes to avoid over-explaining his art, though Welles cuts to a deeper secret that seems to explode the trickery-for-its-own-sake playfulness of their parrying and thrusting.
After deftly dodging Welles’s questions for something like a third of Hopper/Welles’s 130-minute running time, Hopper admits that he feels a revolution is impossible in a country with America’s military industrial complex—a practical, persuasive, and devastating claim to hear from the star and director of the American countercultural film, which brings to the forefront the sense of hopelessness that dogs pockets of American progressivism to this day. (Both men clearly feel that politics, like cinema, is largely another game of mythmaking.) This claim also complements earlier Hopper comments, when he essentially says that Easy Rider is romantic bullshit that’s misunderstood by much of its audience. And such sentiments also clarify the self-annihilating despair of The Last Movie, a greater, more daring work than Easy Rider.
Welles cheekily wrestles onto the screen a version of Dennis Hopper that was never seen before or again—a version that suggests the totality of elements that Hopper channeled into various projects throughout the years. Hopper is earnest, elliptical, sometimes almost smugly modest, which Welles challenges frequently, though Hopper often appears to be honestly uncertain about his role in pop culture and almost desperate to flee from it—a desperation, a simultaneous desire to be heard and to vanish, which can spur volcanic violence.
The film’s aesthetic is also at deliberate odds with Hopper’s skittishness, as it’s composed entirely of arresting, jittery black-and-white close-ups of the actor-director, with clapboards frequently intruding to remind us that this confrontation, this exorcism, is, like the rest of Welles and Hopper’s work, only a movie. Both men understand that the artifice of the cinema, its inherent fakeness, is the wellspring of its importance and its danger. We seek distraction for communion and meaning, often at the expense of the latter.
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Orson Welles Director: Orson Welles Running Time: 130 min Rating: NR Year: 1970
Review: The Glorias Is a Perspective-Shifting Ode of Gloria Steinem’s Life
This double helix of a biopic offers a twisty chronology and a slate of perspective-shifting surprises.3
There’s a scene in Gloria Steinem’s 2015 memoir My Life on the Road in which the feminist activist takes an inspiring cab ride with a young driver who has no idea who she is. Having sworn off books, TV, and the internet, he rides around with a drawing of a huge eye “to remind me to see with my own eyes.” And though that driver doesn’t show up in The Glorias, a film that often draws language and imagery from Steinem’s memoir, director Julie Taymor seems to share her protagonist’s determination to experience the world with an unmediated eye. Even as The Glorias revisits the well-trod territory of Steinem’s culture-molding achievements and the historical contexts in which they were made, this double helix of a biopic offers a twisty chronology and a slate of perspective-shifting surprises.
Throughout The Glorias, we return to Steinem riding a bus and talking to herself—that is, four versions of herself, played sequentially and sometimes simultaneously, by Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Lulu Wilson, Alicia Vikander, and Julianne Moore. The world outside the bus’s window—rivers and fields, Steinem’s roving father’s car zipping down the road, the crowded streets of Delhi and New York—shimmers with vibrant colors as she commutes back and forth within her own history. Inside the vehicle, it’s black and white.
Though the device of variously aged versions of the same person conversing with one another recalls Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women, there’s no conflict between the Glorias who ride the bus. These Steinem shadows offer each other only words of regret or reassurance, as they size up the impact of the flightiness of their father, Leo (Timothy Hutton), and the mental illness of their mother, Ruth (Enid Graham), who abandoned a fledgling journalism career. But this space and its omnipresence explain how Steinem, whoever’s playing her, can be both boldly present in the moment and somehow standing at a careful distance.
The bus—along with the road that Steinem’s traveled—is what holds her back but also what steels her resolve. It’s there as Vikander’s Gloria first panics at the thought of public speaking and then becomes a leading voice of American feminism and as Moore’s Gloria stoically and sardonically absorbs the salacious, spiteful media storm after she launches Ms. magazine. When Steinem first tries on her signature sunglasses and the store clerk cautions her that they’ll hide her beautiful face, Vikander’s Gloria grins inwardly, as if sharing a sly secret with her former and future selves, before declaring, “They’re perfect.” With so many incarnations of herself to turn to, it’s easy for Gloria Steinem to keep her own counsel.
Like My Life on the Road, The Glorias takes a dogged disinterest in a romantic life much-scrutinized elsewhere, focusing instead on Steinem’s impassioned friendships with her collaborators: Flo Kennedy (played with fierce, candid warmth by Lorraine Toussaint), Dorothy Pitman Hughes (Janelle Monáe), Bella Abzug (Bette Midler), and Wilma Mankiller (Kimberly Guerrero), the first woman elected Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation. The film’s attention to Steinem’s great gift as a listener (she has been called a “celestial bartender”) more than justifies the stops along the way that focus on the diverse voices, like Mankiller’s, that Steinem helped to amplify, her activism energized always by allyship.
Experimental playwright Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room, or the Vibrator Play) makes her screenwriting debut here, sharing the credit with Taymor, and much of the thematic legwork has been done for them. In her memoir, Steinem psychologizes her constant travel as she draws connections between her father’s nomadic urges and her own need to be on the move. But the film weaves its own refreshingly unpredictable web as the strands of Steinem’s life spiral around each other through snippets of scenes that work efficiently and never preachily. (Only occasionally do Taymor’s tricksy fantasy sequences land on the wrong side of weird.)
The Glorias loses its balance only when Steinem’s life rushes up against history, the film’s kaleidoscopic momentum tripping toward a future that hasn’t been written yet. As the road trip whirls toward 2020, Taymor’s overreliance on documentary footage sometimes jars with the usual deliberateness of her visual storytelling. But the film’s connection with the present moment is also its greatest emotional asset. It’s difficult to separate The Glorias from the context of its release, scenes of Steinem leading rallies for reproductive freedom stretching forward to the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the present threat facing Roe v. Wade.
Whether it’s the movie or the moment, The Glorias gut-punches its way through modern American history. In one briefly animated sequence, the road itself transforms into a treadmill. Though just one striking image of many in The Glorias, it’s the shot that will linger most hauntingly. After traveling so far, how could the road ahead still look so familiar?
Cast: Julianne Moore, Alicia Vikander, Janelle Monáe, Bette Midler, Timothy Hutton, Lorraine Toussaint, Lulu Wilson, Mo Brings Plenty, Ryan Kiera Armstrong, Kimberly Guerrero Director: Julie Taymor Screenwriter: Julie Taymor, Sarah Ruhl Distributor: Roadside Attractions, LD Entertainment Running Time: 139 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: A Call to Spy Is Undone by Spy-Thriller Clichés and Historical Liberties
Because its focus is so split, the film lacks the pervasive sense of danger one expects from a spy thriller.1.5
In 1941, Vera Atkins, a Romanian Jewish immigrant in London, joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a secret British intelligence organization, and quickly became responsible for the recruitment and supervision of dozens of women who would deploy to France as secret agents. In bringing the under-celebrated story of Atkins and a pair of her most intrepid spies to light, director Lydia Dean Pilcher and screenwriter Sarah Megan Thomas certainly make the case that this extraordinary history deserves to be told. But A Call to Spy often exhibits the montage-packed pacing of a trailer, expending more effort in convincing audiences how much this story matters rather than in telling it.
The film’s script compresses the history of the SOE so that two of its most fascinating figures, American agent Virginia Hall (Thomas) and British agent Noor Inayat Khan (Radhika Apte), can form a fast friendship, even though their training and service in France didn’t overlap in real life. There’s a fuzziness in this ahistorical acquaintance that exists only for dramatic convenience, but factual accuracy isn’t the main problem here. In the attempt to equitably juggle the two spies in France and Vera (Stana Katic) back home, the film inevitably tilts toward Virginia, who names her wooden leg “Cuthbert,” scrawls letters to F.D.R. demanding that he make her a diplomat, and refuses to use an umbrella under any circumstance.
Since Virginia’s spy activities include blowing up trains and directing covert helicopter landings, Noor, a wireless operator, can’t compete for dramatic space given that she’s mainly sedentary throughout A Call to Spy. And since Thomas plays Virginia with a brusque contemporary edge that feels more out of place than Katic’s canny, guarded Vera or Apte’s sweetly fierce Noor, there’s a tonal imbalance on top of a structural one.
The most interesting questions of service and identity that the film raises—like the dark underbelly of British anti-Semitism that Vera seems to experience—often get passed over in favor of Virginia’s more action-packed trajectory. But precisely because its focus is so split, A Call to Spy lacks the pervasive sense of danger one expects from a spy thriller. The scenes that evince clichés of such films—at a train station, a stranger hands Virginia a note that reads “follow me,” which she promptly eats—don’t register as suspenseful or realistic.
Of course, the threat to resistance fighters, whether overseas agents with aliases or locals protecting their families and communities on the ground, was brutally omnipresent, as the film sometimes evokes. Virginia’s success as a spy springs from her ability to galvanize civilians, entrusting young people with life-threatening tasks she cannot perform herself as she becomes increasingly recognizable to the Germans. Yet A Call to Spy rarely fleshes out her relationships with any of her French recruits, who speak in hushed tones about the mission at hand but rarely about who they are or what they’re fighting for.
There’s an exchange with a French ally that’s perfect as it is though. As Virginia approaches a ticket agent at a railway station, she realizes that he’s recognized her from the wanted poster hanging nearby. There’s a long, tense silence before he slides her a train ticket and speaks: “Bon courage.” Good people, just like good stories, are everywhere, hiding in plain sight.
Cast: Sarah Megan Thomas, Stana Katic, Radhika Apte, Linus Roache, Rossif Sutherland Director: Lydia Dean Pilcher Screenwriter: Sarah Megan Thomas Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 123 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Review: Possessor Turns Identity Theft into the Stuff of Gory Nightmares
Brandon Cronenberg’s film is obsessed with tensions between mind and body and old and new technologies.3
Brandon Cronenberg’s Possessor is obsessed with tensions between mind and body, and old and new technologies. An analog man in a digital world, Cronenberg invests a narrative along the lines of his father David’s eXistenZ and Christopher Nolan’s Inception with psychedelic imagery and jolts of gouging, bone-splitting, unambiguously in-camera body horror that rival anything in modern cinema for tactility and pure outrageousness. In the process, he imbues Possessor with a disturbing irony: The film’s violence serves as a kind of relief for its perpetrators, who’re displaced by technological doodads and come to long for tangibility, corporeal terra firma, no matter how perverse. Cronenberg represents new-school displacement via old-school effects, refuting the everything-digital flim flam of more polished, “respectable” tent-pole productions.
Possessor opens with its most outrageous sequence. A young Black woman, Holly (Gabrielle Graham), plugs what appears to be the power cord of an amp into her scalp, blood gurgling out of her head as her face twists in misery. She navigates the corridors of a fancy restaurant that’s rife with sharp, dangerous-looking decorations and fleshy noir colors that instantaneously establish the film’s aura of hallucinatory violence. Arriving at an upper level of the building, Holly approaches a heavyset, well-to-do-looking middle-aged white man in a dining hall and stabs him vigorously to death with a steak knife. Cronenberg’s staging leaves nothing to the imagination: We see the knife plunging into the man’s neck and chest at close range dozens of times, as blood drenches his and Holly’s bodies. Holly then produces a gun, trying and failing to summon the nerve to turn it on herself as police close in on her. Seemingly speaking to herself, Holly pleads with someone to let her out, and the cops gun her down.
The sequence is inherently charged even before Cronenberg injects another wrinkle of perversity into mix. Holly was “possessed” by a white woman, Tasya (Andrea Riseborough), who works for a cluster of freelance spy-assassins who hack into people’s minds to frame them for crimes for the gain of third-party clients. Suddenly, a visceral sequence that seemed ostentatiously nasty for its own sake is freighted with social resonance, as white people are benefitting from the framing and killing of Black people. And this twist is intensified by clever misdirection: Before we learn the truth of Tasya’s profession, we’re driven to wonder if she was trying to prevent a murder rather than engineer it, as Tasya is introduced writhing in earnest pain in a coffin-shaped vessel, disconnecting from Holly’s consciousness. Cronenberg initially engenders sympathy for Tasya, whose profession is ultimately shown to be evil.
Cronenberg doesn’t elaborate further on the racial implications of the film’s first scene, which essentially functions as a self-contained short—one of several riffs here on the alienating possibilities of the supreme mental hijack, which the filmmaker eventually contrasts with corporate data-mining, an altogether more relatable kind of invasion. In both cases, people are subliminally controlled in order to serve the master cause of corporate profit. And though Tasya may be one of the manipulators, she’s nearly as subservient to “the system” as her victims, as the process of possession is wearing her down, detaching her from her own identity. In a chilling detail, Tasya practices acting familial before visiting her son (Gage Graham-Arbuthnot) and estranged husband (Rossif Sutherland), trying to remind herself how to be motherly and wifely, interested in the everyday textures of their lives. Tasya is pale and sickly—a ghost in flesh who’s being erased in a manner that suggests the ravages of drug addiction.
Possession and data-mining converge when Tasya, the master agent of her group, earmarked to eventually replace her supervisor, Girder (Jennifer Jason Leigh), is assigned to inhabit the body of Colin Tate (Christopher Abbott), a successful drug dealer who’s set to marry Ava (Tuppence Middleton), daughter of a smug and proudly amoral data raider, John Parse (Sean Bean). An unseen family member craves the Parse inheritance, and wants it to seem as if Colin has lost his mind in a relapse and killed John, Ava, and himself. Tasya, weak and unstable, is loaded into Colin’s mind only to find that his consciousness is willing to put up a fight for control of his body. What ensues is a surreal, mercilessly violent war of the minds.
In Inception, mental violation is equated arbitrarily to levels in a video game, signifying Nolan’s ongoing effort to render subjective elements of human life tediously objective. Cronenberg also physicalizes subjective terrain, but in a manner that nevertheless preserves the mess of neuroses. If Nolan is a classical violinist, Cronenberg is a punk drummer, thrashing away, fashioning images that suggest what might happen if Ingmar Bergman’s Persona were run through the filter of splatter-punk horror. As Tasya and Colin battle, their faces alternately melt and converge, culminating in an astonishing image: Tasya’s face as a kind of clay puppet, which Colin crushes inward so as to cast her out of his body.
This face literalizes the aforementioned, paradoxical notion of a ghost in the flesh, confirming Tasya’s own fears of annihilation even as she seeks to destroy another. As the two spirits become more and more confused, the escalating brutality writ upon collateral parties is understood to be part of a quest for the tangibility of the flesh that Cronenberg himself shares in his obsession with grainy, 1970s- and ‘80s-era horror films. Even the methods of invasion that Tasya and her team use to hijack bodies are pointedly physical, dependent on dials and plugs and cords that are miles away from the anonymous tech of today, suggesting, once again, the instruments of a rock band. (These details are indebted to eXistenZ.)
Though Possessor favors nihilist spectacle to existentialism, Cronenberg is more interested in exploring emotional dislocation than Nolan. Passages in which Tasya-as-Colin wanders the corridors of the Parse empire, befuddled and lost—blending into the lurid skylines and chic corporate Feng shui and omnipresent cameras—succinctly and poignantly communicate the alienating effects of a polished and impersonal world that encourages everyone to steal everything from everyone else. And Possessor has an uncommonly nasty stinger in its tail that’s worthy of Saki, O. Henry, or Philip K. Dick: a punchline that asks us to consider the amorphous boundary separating Tasya’s nightmares from her forbidden yearnings.
Cast: Andrea Riseborough, Christopher Abbott, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Sean Bean, Tuppence Middleton, Rossif Sutherland, Kaniehtiio Horn, Christopher Jacot, Hanneke Talbot, Gabrielle Graham, Gage Graham-Arbuthnot Director: Brandon Cronenberg Screenwriter: Brandon Cronenberg Distributor: Neon Running Time: 104 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Dick Johnson Is Dead Is a Touching Elegy to the (Pretend) Loss of a Parent
Dick Johnson Is Dead isn’t a biography of Kirsten Johnson’s father, but rather a reflective self-portrait of the filmmaker herself.3
Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead grapples with the most utterly basic fact of human existence: that someday all of us will die. If Johnson’s blackly funny documentary about her father’s impending demise is hardly the first film to deal with our shared mortality, rarely has the subject been approached with such directness. Often, films about death primarily focus on the gradual process of a body’s deterioration or the working out of unresolved issues. Dick Johnson Is Dead immediately stands apart, then, when Dick flatly states that he has no regrets in life. He and his daughter aren’t trying to resolve problems between them, and while Dick is slowly losing his memory to dementia, the film isn’t primarily concerned with documenting the stages of his cognitive decline.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is about the simple fact that Dick is alive but soon won’t be, which Johnson treats with whimsy and dark humor by repeatedly staging his death. In the film’s first iteration of this mischievous central conceit, Dick is calmly walking down the street when he’s struck on the head by a falling air conditioner. For a few moments, we see Dick’s body from above, motionless on the ground, the remains of the A/C unit scattered on the sidewalk around him, until production assistants enter the frame, removing the pieces of what’s obviously a prop, and helping Dick off the ground. Later, Dick will fall down the stairs, suffer a heart attack, get struck in the neck with a wooden plank, and undergo other abrupt fatalities—each time being resurrected from the dead as the cinematic artifice of the killing is exposed.
Dick’s untimely ends are startling and funny, many of them accomplished with stuntmen and effects teams, whose efforts behind the scenes become as much a part of the film as the deaths themselves. Dick Johnson Is Dead is very much a film about its own making, one which repeatedly exposes its artifice. We understand that Dick’s true departure from this mortal coil is unlikely to come so swiftly and cinematically as it does in the film, that it’s more likely to involve a gruelingly slow decay of Dick’s body and mind than an airborne appliance.
In a sense, these meticulously crafted simulations of Dick’s death aren’t performed for the benefit of the audience at all. Rather, they’re Johnson’s highly personal means of acclimating herself to the eventual loss of her dad. In one of the documentary’s more poignant scenes, Dick, covered in fake blood from one of the death sequences, loses himself in the moment, forgetting that he’s acting in a film and believing himself to be in mortal peril.
Though nowhere near as idiosyncratic as Abbas Kiarostami’s work, Dick Johnson Is Dead evinces a similar ability to find truth in the gray area between documentary and fiction. In the film’s most eloquent melding of truth and invention, Johnson elaborately stages her father’s funeral, with his friends, family, and fellow church parishioners all in attendance. As a close friend offers a tear-filled eulogy, Dick wonderingly remarks, “I think he thinks it’s the real thing.” Of course, in a sense, it is the real thing, as these are honest emotions that are no less deeply felt simply because Dick is, at the moment, still alive. And in the film’s final scene—which we receive glimpses of throughout—Johnson delivers her own tearful, deeply felt remembrance of her father inside her own closet. Seemingly practicing for his real funeral, she sums things up, “All I know is that Dick Johnson is dead.” But once finished, she opens the door, and there’s Dick, still alive, standing there listening. A title pops up letting us know that he’s yet to kick the bucket, rendering the title yet another of the film’s clever little tricks.
A drawback to Johnson’s deliberately gimmicky style—which includes glitzy visions of Dick in heaven surrounded by notable personages as diverse as Frederick Douglass, Sigmund Freud, and Bruce Lee—is that it doesn’t allow us to access her father as a person. We feel his warmth and his abiding love for his family, but we learn relatively little of his personal history beyond the highlights. Dick’s attitude toward his own death is so breezy and his relationship with Johnson so frictionless that the film can at times feel remarkably undramatic.
Dick Johnson Is Dead, though, isn’t a biography of Dick, but rather a reflective self-portrait of Johnson herself. As her 2016 feature Cameraperson so comprehensively showed, the filmed image can say as much about the person behind the lens as it does about the subject being filmed. And nowhere is this more beautifully demonstrated than in a scene in which Dick is lamenting the death of his wife when, suddenly, the camera moves in close to him and settles beside his chair. Johnson, we realize, has moved herself to be close to her father, to comfort him and share in the loss of the woman who meant so much to the them both. In this moment, as in so much of the film, we may not be able to see Johnson, but her presence is deeply felt.
Director: Kirsten Johnson Distributor: Netflix Running Time: 89 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: Save Yourselves! Takes Trifling and Spotty Aim at Millennial Softness
The film fails to use its millennial characters to investigate contemporary attitudes about the possibility of world annihilation.1.5
Alex Huston Fischer and Eleanor Wilson’s Save Yourselves! is the latest in a recent trend of millennial-themed works of science fiction and fantasy to fast-forward past the dystopian phase of our collapsing world in order to land on its complete annihilation. The film introduces its main characters, stereotypical Brooklynite couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds), chafing from the pressures of constant work and the dull routine of their lives. Feeling that their jobs and relationship have grown stale, they elect to take a week-long trip to a friend’s cabin upstate where they will completely unplug from the outside world. But no sooner do they head out than the camera tilts up to the sky to reveal a white plume resembling a plane contrail splitting into tendrils of light that arc toward the ground. The road is now paved for many a gag at the expense of Su and Jack’s last-to-the-party obliviousness.
Most of the film’s most cutting jokes are offered up before the cataclysmic impact of that strange occurrence becomes known to Su and Jack. While preparing for their trip, Su emails her boss to request a vacation and notes that she will not be reachable by phone or email, which prompts an immediate response telling her that she’s fired, a brutal gag on the scarcity of true vacations without work in present-day American life. And that’s a grind that Su and Jack, like so many of us, are only too content to submit to, as they’re constantly trying to sell themselves on their promise to disconnect, even admitting on their first night as they gawk at the natural beauty of the starlit sky how badly they miss surfing their phones.
More lacerating are the ways that their sheltered lives clash with the necessities of cabin living. This is especially true of Jack, whose emasculation is served up for our delight across scenes where he struggles to be self-reliant. When Su proposes that they tell each other secrets, Jack, with his carefully coiffed appearance and neurotic attentiveness, admits, “I don’t know how to be a man.” He wishes he could be the kind of stereotypically masculine man that his father represents, and his own status as a more enlightened man who respects women and his own feelings is a consciously maintained identity that he often resents.
Yet these sporadic moments of insight into millennial posturing and technological reliance are less of a thematic bedrock on which Save Yourselves! is founded than they are peripheral to the story, which starts to roll out in simplified fashion once Su and Jack learn of the alien invasion that’s been ravaging the planet ever since they unplugged. As for the aliens, they’re merely large balls of fur with no discernible faces or limbs (shades of the beach ball-like alien from John Carpenter’s Dark Star), which inevitably results in redundant moments revolving around Su and Jack first noticing what they assume to be a pouffe that keeps materializing around the house, and later a number of images of the seemingly harmless creatures abruptly snaking out an appendage that punches through the bodies of unlucky humans.
Fischer and Wilson attempt to juxtapose the twee tropes of a certain strain of indie comedy—brightly lit and colored images, ever-frazzled protagonists, a generally deadpan tone—with the epic horror of a global-invasion film, something that isn’t unprecedented (see Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal) but here lacks a clear through line. Rather than use its emotionally detached tone as an ironic counterpoint to the terror wreaked by hostile extraterrestrials, the film simply reconfigures the aliens into its mannered atmosphere. As a result, the carnage on that we occasionally glimpse on the screen is neither scary nor darkly amusing.
Soon, all of those jokes about Su and Jack’s difficulties at roughing it start to feel less effective once they launch into survival mode. Jack’s squeamishness about using guns provides a few laughs as he frantically rattles off rehearsed statistics about the danger of firearms, but the extended bits about the couple’s inability to drive stick shift further pulls focus away from the film’s dominant theme of millennial softness. Su and Jack’s previously aired generational anxiety only pays off when they’re saddled with an unexpected companion, but a throwaway joke here and there is about the extent to which the film delves into its characters’ minds.
Crucially, the film fails to use its millennial characters to investigate contemporary attitudes about the possibility of world annihilation. Any news story these days about an asteroid or meteor passing within any noteworthy distance of Earth is greeted with almost-wistful fantasizing about an obliterating collision, and for all of the sarcasm of such reactions, there’s a pronounced death drive among those facing the increasing probability of a slower and more painful extinction that’s been addressed, albeit with more dour severity, in films such as Melancholia. There’s plenty of room for a movie to address such fatalistic ideas with equally bleak humor, but Save Yourselves! lacks the causticness to deliver on that front.
Cast: Sunita Mani, John Reynolds, Ben Sinclair, John Early, Jo Firestone, Gary Richardson Director: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson Screenwriter: Alex Huston Fischer, Eleanor Wilson Distributor: Bleecker Street Running Time: 93 min Rating: R Year: 2020
Review: Blood on the Wall Is a Spread-Thin Look at the Migrant Crisis
Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s prismatic look at a devastating new chapter in the War on Drugs lacks for cohesiveness.2
Cleaning and loading one of the automatic weapons lying on the floor before him, a masked member of a Mexican cartel decries that the “United States gives the weapons, Mexico gives the dead. Americans engage in the wars they want. In Mexico, war just shows up.” It’s a chilling, damning sentiment, and one that, delivered at the start of Sebastian Junger and Nick Quested’s Blood on the Wall, appears to establish the documentary’s guiding principle. But the filmmakers’ interrogation of the myriad ways in which U.S. weapon trades and nefarious interventions in Central America over the past half century have laid the groundwork for the current crises in Mexico is just one of many topics covered here.
Throughout its brisk 93-minute runtime, the documentary not only tackles the disproportionate impact that the War on Drugs has had on Central Americans, it touches on NAFTA, the decentralization of power in Mexico, the C.I.A.’s connection to the Guadalajara cartel, drug mules, the rise of synthetic opioids, community policing, and the massive migrant caravan that, in 2018, made its way from Honduras all the way up to the southern U.S. border. It’s a sprawling, all-encompassing portrait that seeks to identify the causes and effects of the drug war and cartel violence on both a macro and micro scale, but Junger and Quested’s prismatic look at all these complex policies and events lacks for cohesiveness.
Blood on the Wall is at its most incisive and immediate when it hitches its perspective to various members of the migrant caravan—particularly 17-year-old Ludy, whose harrowing, 1,000-mile trek from Guatemala is the personal lens through which we glean the benefits and dangers of traveling in such a massive group of people. It’s during these more intimate stretches that the documentary feels the most grounded. The widespread tragedies caused by policy decisions (and often deliberately) on the part of both the U.S. and Mexico are given an astonishing specificity here that’s absent in the many disturbing yet impersonal shots of decapitated heads and widespread violence captured in other sections of the film.
The attempts to place Ludy’s exodus, and that of thousands of other Central Americans, within a larger context are certainly admirable, even necessary. But in not picking their battles in terms of narrative focus, the filmmakers lose the thread that connects all the disparate issues they cover, and how they led to the mass migration of Central Americans to the United States. Junger and Quested seek to give us a comprehensive and indispensable look at a devastating new chapter in the War on Drugs, but given that their grasp has exceeded their reach, Blood on the Wall ultimately just feels like a starting point for the study of the subject.
Director: Sebastian Junger, Nick Quested Distributor: National Geographic Documentary Films Running Time: 93 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
Review: 12 Hour Shift Is a Well-Oiled Organ-Harvesting Farce That’s Short on Style
Its revolving-door atmosphere papers over some iffy acting, baggy dialogue, and more than a few minutes of wasted real estate.2.5
Writer-director Brea Grant’s 12 Hour Shift ends, neatly and pointedly, as it begins: in a hospital parking lot, with a cold, hard acknowledgement of a brutal workday’s toll on a person. In the opening scene, Nurse Mandy’s (Angela Bettis) world-weary face suggests a lifetime of sleepless nights, and as she takes drags from a cigarette that’s clearly her lifeline to sanity, she visibly endures her co-worker Cathy’s (Julianne Dowler) small talk about a day she’d like to forget, before then telling her to fuck off after the woman’s pleasantries give way to presumptions about Mandy’s weight and how she’s getting by.
The film’s bookend scenes represent the closest thing to a break that Mandy enjoys during her double shift. Unfortunately, they’re also our only breathers from a story that’s so driven by the necessities of plot that it makes scant room for characterization. Indeed, that opening scene is one of few here where the audience gets to really sit with the characters and their feelings, to think of them as actual people. Its richness is such that when we learn that Mandy runs an organ-stealing operation out of the hospital where she works, and that Cathy’s presumptions about Mandy weren’t so wild, Mandy’s brusqueness toward her co-worker still feels justified.
Bettis makes you believe right out of the gate that Mandy, regardless of how she gets by, has earned her right to tell Cathy to mind her own fucking business. Otherwise, 12 Hour Shift reduces Mandy, and everyone else who comes into her orbit, to a cog in its plot’s wheels. You believe that the character has to snort pills in order to get through a shift (shades of Nurse Jackie), but you may wish for an inkling that she once cared about her patients beyond their capacity to supply her with organs. She’s kind, yes, to one dialysis patient (Ted Ferguson), but it’s hard to shake the impression that the old man only exists to get swept up in the bloody free-for-all that ensues after a kidney intended for a group of gangsters goes missing.
Mandy and her flighty but resourceful half-cousin co-conspirator, Regina (Chloe Farnworth), get into it at various points across 12 Hour Shift’s 86-minute running time, and in a way that suggests that their illicit conduct was an inevitable result of their social position. But Grant also doesn’t convey a palpable sense of place—of the hospital being located somewhere else other than a nondescript Anywheresville—and as such the characters’ pitilessness is never fully contextualized. The film was shot in Jonesboro, Arkansas, but its characters and their accents are such that you’d think that it takes place no further east of Pomona.
Of course, 12 Hour Shift isn’t in the verisimilitude game. The plot, geared as much for comedy as horror, is wound with efficient build-up, and its revolving-door atmosphere is consistent enough to paper over some iffy acting, baggy dialogue, and more than a few minutes of wasted real estate, such as an anemic bit in which the hospital’s head nurse, Karen (Nikea Gamby-Turner), recoils in disgust as she eats whatever it is she decided to lunch on that day.
The film’s highlight is a scene in which an incompetent police officer (Kit Williamson) walks in on Mandy removing a kidney from a dead patient and being unable to process the legitimacy of her actions. The moment is mischievous for the way that Officer Myers tries to square his understanding of Mandy’s profession with her blood-splattered face and clothes, while she walks the razor’s edge between professional calm and murderous rage, trying not to comprise her organ-stealing racket. The close-quarters framing so perfectly intensifies the uneasy, blackly comic energy of the scene that one wishes that the rest of the film wasn’t rife with the shorthand and didn’t have the look and pacing of a multi-camera sitcom.
Cast: Angela Bettis, David Arquette, Chloe Farnworth, Mick Foley, Kit Williamson, Nikea Gamby-Turner, Tara Perry, Brooke Seguin, Dusty Warren, Tom DeTrinis, Thomas Hobson, Julianne Dowler, Briana Lane, Taylor Alden Director: Brea Grant Screenwriter: Brea Grant Distributor: Magnet Releasing Running Time: 86 min Rating: NR Year: 2020
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