Chris Renaudâs The Secret Life of Pets, the story of two pet dogs, Max (Louis C.K.) and Duke (Eric Stonestreet), who find themselves sucked into the dangerous world of the New York City streets, doesnât lack for pedal-to-the-metal energy. Amusing throwaway gags abound: a lavish Busby Berkeley-like fantasy sequence involving dancing sausages singing the âWe Go Togetherâ number from Grease; a shrine for a dead duck named Ricky whose name carries legendary weight among a group of sewer-dwelling animal revolutionaries who call themselves Flushed Pets; and a dialogue exchange that pays out-of-nowhere tribute to the classic last two lines from Some Like It Hot (substitute its penultimate line with âIâm a catâ and you get the idea). Renaud tosses these bits of comic inspiration at a furious clip, and the messy pile-up can be exhilarating in the momentâthe chaos of an id given free rein.
If only all of these disconnected ideas added up to more than the sum of its parts. The Secret Life of Petsâs high concept has a certain allure to it, offering a tantalizing peek at what house pets actually do and think once their owners leave them for the day. And most of the filmâs sharpest jokes in that regard come in its first half, especially when Maxâa former stray who considers himself âthe luckiest dog in the worldââfinds his place in his ownerâs (Ellie Kemper) heart threatened when she brings Duke home one day.
The rivalry that develops between the two, in which both pooches try to assert their dominance, offers a persuasive comic slant on real-life territorial canine behavior. A similar wit underpins the anthropomorphic characterizations of some of the storyâs other critters, like lazy fat cat Chloe (Lake Bell), who articulates the kind of aristocratic nonchalance that generally marks feline behavior; the easily distracted pug Mel (Bobby Moynihan), who seemingly goes after anything that moves; and Tiberius (Albert Brooks), a predatory falcon who oozes menace even at his most self-aware.
The promise of a comedy built on such clever human translations of animal behavior, however, soon dissipates as the film becomes an increasingly shrill and over-the-top adventure yarn, climaxing with this yearâs second instance, after Pixarâs Finding Dory, of animals driving a truck. This might not matter so much if The Secret Life of Pets had the emotional weight to support its frantic action. But the initially antagonistic relationship between Max and Duke goes the predictable reconciliatory route, with Max developing more sympathy for Duke after the latter mournfully reveals his own origins as a stray who still regrets the way he accidentally abandoned his kindly owner.
And though some of the dramatic intrigue revolves around the heroic efforts of Gidget (Jenny Slate), a female Pomeranian with a crush on Max, to rescue the filmâs two protagonists, her undying affection for him is never explained, coming off as merely an attempt to introduce dramatic stakes in a film too taken with momentary comic whims to commit to any thematic through lines, much less pathos. By the end, The Secret Life of Pets is so lacking in emotional payoff that one canât help but regret that the filmmakers didnât aim higher with such a golden premise than fleeting comic diversions.
Cast: Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Kevin Hart, Jenny Slate, Ellie Kemper, Albert Brooks Director: Chris Renaud Screenwriter: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio, Brian Lynch Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 90 min Rating: PG Year: 2016 Buy: Video, Soundtrack
Review: His House Is a Creepy Allegory About Learning to Live with Trauma
Throughout, Remi Weekes forcefully, resonantly ties the filmâs terror to the inner turmoil of his characters.3
British writer-director Remi Weekesâs 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 familyâs 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, theyâre âborn again.â But Rial doesnât 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 Rialâs 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 theyâre wearing in a futile attempt to replicate their appearance. Itâs a blunt but potent illustration of how migrantsâ 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 theyâre 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 inhabitantsâ damaged psyches, their grief and guilt manifesting as ghostsâmost chillingly in the form of zombified migrants who died during the perilous crossing to England that opens the film.
Throughout His House, Weekesâs 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. Itâs an unusual combination, but one thatâs rendered even more forceful and emotionally resonant by the directorâs ability to tie the filmâs 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 thatâs 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 thatâs also too easy, as one doesnât 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. Thatâs akin to saying that all an apple ever really symbolizes is an apple, and that symbols and subtexts essentially donât 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 thatâs revelatory of the entire horror genre: These works arenât about the fear of dying, but the fear of dying alone, a subtlety that cuts to the bone of our fear of death anywayâof a life unlived. Thereâs 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 Kurosawaâs Pulse. What is the imposing creature at the dark heart of F.W. Murnauâs 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 donât achieve their desired self-actualization are freaks. The horror film says: Wait Jack, it ainât 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 isnât cynical, as it insists on the humanity thatâs inextinguishable even by severe atrocity. Which is to say thereâs hope, and catharsis, offered by the horror film. It tells us bruised romantics that weâre all in this together, thus offering evidence that we may not be as alone as we may think. Chuck Bowen
Editorâs 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 protagonistâs supernatural awakening is linked predominantly to sex. At the start of the film, Justine (Garance Marillier) is a virgin whoâs poked and prodded relentlessly by her classmates until she evolves only to be rebuffed for being too interested in sexâa no-win hypocrisy faced by many women. High-pressure taunts casually and constantly hang in the air, such as Alexiaâs (Ella Rumpf) insistence that âbeauty is painâ and a song that urges a woman to be âa whore with decorum.â 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 thatâs 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 thatâs ironically relieved by the grotesque intimacy of the violence. Weâre 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 filmâs end, Ducournau has hauntingly outlined only a few possibilities for Justine: that sheâll 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 Bavaâs 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 Bavaâs 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 itâs only the basic tenor of a psychopath slaying victims one by one thatâs remained intact within the subgenre in the 40-plus years of this filmâs existence. Itâs in this filmâs elementary plotting that Bava, by withholding information and leaning more on animalistic themes dictating bizarre character motivation, unveils a deceptive depth that the filmâs acolytes canât 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 Hitchcockâs polish, which in this case is a blessing. In the filmâs best sequences, particularly the moments following Karenâs (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 cameraâa 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, Soleâs directorial control is magisterial. Annieâs (Jane Lowry) near murder, when sheâs 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 Stokerâs Dracula (1992)
âSee me. See me now,â Gary Oldmanâs 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, âthe greatest attraction of the century.â The intersection of vampire and victim in front of a labyrinth of movie screens is telling, as Francis Ford Coppolaâs 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 Draculaâs 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 âcrossed oceans of timeâ to find Mina, and Coppola shows how the cinematically preternatural similarly finds and seduces audiencesâhow movies offer their own sparkle of immortality. Bram Stokerâs Dracula is noteworthy for how un-scary it is, and yet Coppolaâs fanciful movie tool-box conceits, in perfect sync with Oldmanâs 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 Morrisseyâs unique ability to meld social critique, gonzo humor, and gore into a genre piece thatâs ambivalent about the passing of eras. Udo Kierâs 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 Kierâs convulsing body not for campy laughs, but to highlight its anguish and deterioration. The opening shot, set to Claudio Gizziâs 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 humankindâs tribulations, whether in pursuit of pleasure or gripped in pain. Clayton Dillard
95. Martyrs (2008)
Writer-director Pascal Laugierâs Martyrs leaves you with the scopophilic equivalent of shell shock. The gauntlet that his filmâs heroine, a âfinal girlâ whoâs 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 Priceâs performances are campy, and blood is red. Laugierâs film is grueling because thereâs no real way to easily get off on images of simulated violence. The filmâs soul-crushing finale makes it impossible to feel good about anything Laugier has depicted. In it, Laugier suggests that thereâs no way to escape from the pain of the exclusively physical reality of his film. You donât watch Laugierâs harrowing feel-bad masterpieceârather, youâre 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 Andrewsâs comically hardheaded Dr. Holden how can one differentiate between the powers of darkness and the powers of the mind, Niall MacGinnisâs 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 doesnât 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, âMaybe itâs better not to know.â Even in the face of overwhelming evidence, sometimes the easiest way to deal with the devil is to pretend he doesnât exist. Derek Smith
93. The Devilâs Backbone (2001)
Guillermo del Toroâs 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 orphanageâs 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 Devilâs Backbone hauntingly ruminates on the decay of country whose living are so stuck in past as to seem like ghosts. But thereâs hope in brotherhood, and in negotiating the ghostly Santiâs past and bandying together against the cruel Jacinto (Eduardo Noriega), the filmâs children ensure their survival and that of their homeland. Ed Gonzalez
92. Let the Right One In (2008)
Not unlike Matt Reevesâs American remake, Tomas Alfredsonâs Let the Right One In is, in its color scheme and emotional tenor, something almost unbearably blue. When Oskar (KĂ„re Hedebrant), a 12-year-old outcast perpetually bullied at school, meets Eli (Lina Leandersson), the mysterious new girl at his apartment complex, one childâs painful coming of age is conflated with anotherâs insatiable bloodlust. The film treats adolescence, even a vampireâs arrested own, as a prolonged horrorâlifeâs 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. Donât avert your eyes from Alfredsonâs gorgeously, meaningfully aestheticized vision, though you may want to cover your neck. Gonzalez
91. Black Cat (1934)
Based loosely on one of Edgar Allen Poeâs most disquieting tales, 1934âs The Black Cat is one of the neglected jewels in Universal Studiosâs horror crown. Edgar Ulmerâs 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. Itâs a fable of modernity darkened with war, obsession, and madness. Much like the other tone poem of the Universal horror series, Karl Freundâs gorgeously mannered The Mummy, Ulmerâs 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 Henenlotterâs 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. Briaâsn (Rick Herbst) degradation suggests the crack epidemic of the 1980s, and the threat and alienation of AIDS lingers over the outrĂ©, sexualized set pieces, especially when Brian cruises a night club called Hell and picks up a woman, whoâs murdered by Aylmer (voiced by John Zacherle) just as sheâs about to go down on Brian. The most hideous of this filmâs images is a shot of the back of Brianâs neck after Aylmerâan 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 Parkâs Mr. Hankyâhas first injected him, with its cartography of blood lines that are so tactile we can nearly feel Brianâs 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 Galliganâs 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 Karglâs 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 thatâs as disorienting to the viewer as the implacable urge to kill is for Erwin Lederâs unnamed psychopath. Angst elides all psychological trappings, instead tapping directly into this all-consuming desire for destruction on a purely physiological and experiential level. Karglâs camera prowls around Lederâs madman like an ever-present ghostâa 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 Huxleyâs 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 Reevesâs Witchfinder General, and set in roughly the same time period, Russellâs 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 SĂĄnchezâs terrifyingly singular and effortlessly self-reflexive genre exercise. The heartbreaking fall from sanity experienced by the trio of naĂŻve filmmakers preys with ecstatic precision on our most instinctive fears, building to a rousing crescendo of primordial terror thatâs arguably unrivaled by anything the genre has seen before or since. Rob Humanick
85. Who Can Kill a Child? (1972)
Narciso IbĂĄĂ±ez Serradorâs 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. IbĂĄĂ±ez 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 heâll 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 doesnât always prevail, no matter how much weâd 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 oneâs lookingâthe horrors of Hill House are almost entirely unseen in Robert Wiseâs adaptation of Shirley Jacksonâs famous novel The Haunting of Hill House. But theyâre nonetheless chillingly tangible, brought to life by The Hauntingâs supercharged production values: Elliot Scottâs dazzlingly florid interiors; Davis Boultonâs 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 filmâs 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 canât explain. Keith Watson
83. HĂ€xan (1922)
Near the conclusion of HĂ€xan, an intertitle asks: âThe witch no longer flies away on her broom over the rooftops, but isnât superstition still rampant among us?â Such a rhetorical question is in keeping with the implications of Benjamin Christensenâs eccentric historical crawl through representations of evil. Though the film begins as something of a lecture on the topic of womenâs bodies as a threat, it morphs into an array of sketches, images, and dramatizations of mankindâs fundamental inability to conceive itself outside of power and difference. Contemporary footage of insane asylums and women being treated for hysteria confirms a truth thatâs 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 Carpenterâs 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 canât 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 Neillâs driven-mad investigator, pictured in the filmâs 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 Bigelowâs melancholic Near Dark remains a singular milestone in the evolution of the vampire myth. Itâs a delirious fever dream grounded periodically by masterfully constructed scenes of carnage and the rooting of its mythology in the periodâs twin boogeymen of addiction and infection. An excellent cast of pulp iconsâBill Paxton and Lance Henriksen are particularly unhingedâbring restless energy to the story of itinerant vampires cruising the neon-soaked highways of a beautifully desolate Southwest. Itâs Gus Van Sant through a Southern-gothic haze, thrumming with an urgency bestowed by Tangerine Dreamâs score and thematic heft alike. Abhimanyu Das
Review: Robert Zemeckisâs Take on The Witches Casts a Weak Spell
This is a sleeker-looking vehicle thatâs eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly.1.5
For anybody arguing that the grand potential for boundary-breaking entertainment in 2020âs wide-open world of content-hungry streaming services has produced more mediocrity than anything else, Robert Zemeckisâs take on Roald Dahlâs 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 storyâscripted by Zemeckis along with Guillermo del Toro and Black-ish creator Kenya Barrisâmatch those of Nicolas Roegâs 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 itâs time for a vacation. Unfortunately, their destination also happens to be the site of an international witchesâ convention (meeting under the tongue-in-cheek name of the International Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children).
Much of Zemeckisâs 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. Thatâs where the witchesâwho otherwise look like heavily made-up society ladies from a well-intentioned, awards-courting period film about the Southâmeet 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 witchesâ 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 Roegâs more disquieting version. This is a sleeker-looking vehicle thatâs eager to be scary but not comfortable being ugly. When Anjelica Hustonâs Grand High Witch in Roegâs 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 itâs more suited for a fashion showâs runway than a childâs 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 âmainstreamâ audience. Also, Zemeckis fortunately didnât feel a need to repeat the previous filmâs 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 werenât 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 Moviefilmâs 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 Cohenâs most indelible comic creation became a victim of his own success. The mustachioed Kazakh journalistâwhose racism, misogyny, anti-Semitism, and downright backwardness are leavened by his blithe optimismâbecame so recognizableâin part, through the ubiquity of bad impersonations and cheap Halloween costumesâthat he had to be effectively retired. Thatâs a shame, because while Borat was always, at heart, a cartoonish stereotype, he was also a potent and surprisingly elastic embodiment of Americaâs deep ignorance about the rest of the world.
Though ostensibly a reflection of small-town Kazakh life, Cohenâs 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. Bushâs so-called war on terror, Borat was often mistaken for an Arab. In one of the original filmâs most notorious scenes, rodeo producer Bobby Rowe advises Borat to shave his âdadgum mustache,â 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 Boratâs much-belated follow-up featureâofficially 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 throughoutâBorat 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 Trumpâs third wife (whom Epstein claimed to have introduced to the Donald) hails from as well. Itâs no surprise, then, that cracks about Epstein and jokes about Melania being Trumpâs 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 Cohenâs satirical targets are too diverse and the filmâs 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. Whatâs Borat to do? The solution is obvious: to present Pence with his underage daughter insteadâwhich 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 Tutarâs advances have already made headlines: Trumpâs 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 âAmericaâs Mayor,â is perhaps Borat Subsequent Moviefilmâs most shocking and uncomfortably hilarious sceneânot simply for the already-infamous hand-in-his-pants moment. The giddiness that Giuliani exhibits in response to Tutarâs 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 sheâs pregnant and asking for an abortion, firmly assures her that the baby is in fact a blessing, even when heâs 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 Fairâwith Borat disguised, as he is for much of the film, as a grizzled hayseed with a Prince Valiant hairdoâwould seem to offer endless opportunities for up-close-and-personal pranks, but instead itâs largely just the backdrop for a few sight gags. Similarly, Boratâs 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 reactionâhow do unsuspecting, and mostly well-meaning, people react when confronted with a ludicrous foreigner who says wildly un-PC things?âthe sequel too often feels like itâs 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 predecessorsâgleefully indulging in stereotypes about backwards foreignersâthere 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 itâs not always the stuff of sharp satire. Nor is the filmâs 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 Naymanâs Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks Honors PTAâs Ambiguities
Naymanâs discussion of Andersonâs ellipses implicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Andersonâs work.
The title of Adam Naymanâs Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is misleading, evoking what the author refers to in the bookâs introduction as ââŠcheerleadingâthe stroking, in prose, of already tumescent reputations.â While Nayman clearly reveres one of the most acclaimed and mythologized of contemporary American filmmakers, heâs willing to take the piss out of his subject, sveltely moving between Andersonâs strengths, limitations, and the obsessions that bind them, fashioning an ornate and suggestive system of checks and balances. Like Glenn Kennyâs 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 artistâs achievements. In the process, Nayman achieves one of a criticâs 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 filmâs 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 filmmakerâs maturation noted with easy retrospection as a kind of manifest destiny, Nayman assembles Andersonâs films in chronological order according to the time periods in which theyâre set. The book opens with 2007âs There Will Be Blood (the directorâs fifth film) and penultimately concludes with 2002âs contemporary-set Punch-Drunk Love, Andersonâs 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 2017âs Phantom Thread, Andersonâs 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 Andersonâs America while the filmmaker himself leaps all over the place in terms of artistic control. The wrenching ambiguity of 2014âs Inherent Vice, in which Anderson fluidly dramatizes the psychosexual ecstasy, despair, and hilarity of corrosive commercialist annihilation, gives way in the book to Andersonâs 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 thatâs 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 juveniliaâthe self-consciousness, the overt debts to various filmmakers, the wild mood swingsâto fashion a tonal fabric that still makes room for all of those qualities, only theyâre 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, 2012âs The Master, and Phantom Thread, respectively. Andersonâs films toggle between valorizing and criticizing men of industry whoâve, 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 Andersonâs 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 Andersonâs mutating aesthetic as Nayman does in Masterworks. Most immediately, itâs a pure, visceral pleasure simply to read Naymanâs descriptions of imagery. On There Will Be Blood, he notably writes the following: âEmerging and descending at his own methodical pace, heâs an infernal figure moving in a Sisyphean rhythm, and the trajectory of his movementsâgrueling ascents and sudden, punishing drops along a vertical axis, punctuating an otherwise steady horizontal forward progressâestablishes the visual and narrative patterning of the film to come.â
Such âpatterningâ is an obsession of Naymanâs, 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 1999âs Magnolia into an intricate formalism thatâs complemented by a new kind of instability: unconventional, unexpected ellipses in the narratives that underscore a sense that weâre missing something in the psychology of the protagonists, in the America that contains the characters, and perhaps even in Andersonâs understanding of his own work. The obsessive nature of Andersonâs bold often âlateralâ imagery is also enriched by the endless twins and doppelgangers that populate his films, suggesting that heâs 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 Kriepsâs Alma of Phantom Thread bears to the many dream women haunting Joaquin Phoenixâs 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.
Naymanâs discussion of Andersonâs ellipsesâespecially 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 filmmakerâs 1996 feature directorial debut, Hard Eightâimplicitly cuts to the heart of why some critics and audiences resist Andersonâs 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 freeingâexcusing not only the author, but the audience from thankless exposition so as to skip to the âgood parts,â the moments that cut to the heart of the protagonistsâ and Andersonâs 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: âHis later films are masterworks that donât quite fill their own canvases, drawing power from the negative space.â
Paul Thomas Anderson Masterworks is now available from Abrams.
NewFest 2020: Dry Wind and Alice JĂșnior Take Aim at the Patriarchy in Brazil
Itâs a provocative juxtaposition for Dry Wind to stage its queer kinkfest at the epicenter of the land of Bolsonaro.
Daniel Nolascoâs Dry Wind and Gil Baroniâs Alice JĂșnior, both screening in the international section at this yearâs 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 GoiĂĄs, 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 CatalĂŁo, where sex between soccer-loving men who wouldnât hesitate to call themselves âdiscreetâ 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, Nolascoâs frames are also filled with much hairâhairy faces, butts, and backs, suggesting a queer sexuality cobbled together with the coarseness of the menâs local environment, despite the clearly foreign influence of Nolascoâs hyper-stylized aesthetics. The filmâs 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 PĂ©kin, from Kenneth Angerâs Scorpio Rising to Rainer Werner Fassbinderâs 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, itâs one that has to do with jealousy, or the impossibility of intimacy in such queer configurations where sex is public only if itâs 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 filmâs most interesting moments emerge precisely when it surrenders to the presumably illogical strangeness of erotic fantasy.
For instance, when Sandro (Leandro Faria Lelo)âwho regularly has sex in the woods with a co-worker, Ricardo (Allan Jacinto Santana), after their shift at the factoryâhappens upon what looks like a leather bar, the place turns out to be an empty construction site where queer archetypesâthe harnessed master, the puppy slave, the drag-queen hostessâare 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 Guiraudieâs Stranger by the Lake, a generically bearded hunk (Marcelo DâAvilla) 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 JĂșnior 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 isnât Baroniâs aim, which is clear in the filmâs 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 coneâs real essence.
One becomes accustomed to the filmâs 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 JĂșnior 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 Baroniâs 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 JĂșnior can be, itâs at its core a typical Brazilian kidsâ 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 â90s, 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 naĂŻve 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 doesnât 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 womenâs restroom. At times sheâs a woke warrior, and at times sheâs a helpless little girl.
Alice JĂșnior 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 Aliceâs 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 theyâre unfilteredâqueer in attitude, not in wardrobe. Jean Genet and Marisa donât toast to their kids because theyâre decent human beings fighting heterosexual patriarchy, but for being the âdevilish bitchâ and âdirty-mouthed transâ that they are.
NewFest runs from October 16â27.
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; theyâre 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. Itâs 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.
Theyâre all victims of Synchronic, a designer drug that literally sends young people, with their soft pineal glands, into the pastâand just how far depends randomly on where they are in the present. Soon, Dennisâs 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 friendâs 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 McGuireâs 2014 graphic novel Here and David Loweryâs 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 Moorheadâs 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. âThe past fucking sucks!â Steve cries upon returning home from one trip. And heâs not wrongâespecially 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 isnât 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 Marderâs film captures, with urgency and tenderness, just how enticing the residue of the past can be.3
“Fucked!â Thatâs 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 worldâs loudest bands, the Swans frontman went on to say, âItâs a fix. It must unleash endorphins, because being inside the sound is to me the ultimate. When itâs working and weâre all psychically connected and the musicâs taking us over, I canât imagine anything more exquisite.â
At the start of Darius Marderâs 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). Itâs the sound of agony and ecstasy intertwinedâa 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 bandâs live shows stands in sharp contrast to Ruben and Louâs personal life, which consists of quiet evenings dancing to soul music in their RV and waking up to health shakes and yoga. But itâs seemingly only during their performances that Ruben feels both truly alive and at peace with himself, getting his fix of the rhythmic noise thatâs become his new drug of choice. So when the slight ringing in Rubenâs ears the night before turns into a dull roar, leaving all surrounding noises muffled beyond recognition, itâs not merely his professional livelihood thatâs 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. Rubenâs life on the road, and thus his existence âinside the sound,â becomes a thing of the past when, at Louâs request, he agrees to stay at a remote community for the deaf that specializes in helping recovering addicts. And itâs here that Ruben is again forced to confront his addictive tendencies. Only now heâs 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, isnât 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 oneâs disability. But the filmmakers fill out the familiar framework of Rubenâs 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 isnât a handicap.
As the film traces Rubenâs integration into this community, and his increasing understanding of sign language, it becomes even more highly attuned to Rubenâs emotional and sensorial experiences, both in terms of his newfound physical impairment and his struggle to accept the uncertain future ahead of him. Itâs 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 Joeâs calm and patient acceptance of reality, and all its complications, and Rubenâs undying need to return to âbeing inside the soundâ colors the rest of the film.
Later on, Joe tells Ruben that âthose moments of stillness, that place, thatâs the kingdom of God. And that place will never abandon you.â Rubenâs professed atheism deflates the religious aspect of Joeâs 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
Review: Ham on Rye Is an Elegant, Grand Chronicle of a Chaos Foretold
The filmâs purposeful archness challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.3.5
Tyler Taorminaâs Ham on Rye, in which high school children come of age while moseying around the San Fernando Valley in anticipation of an undefined formal event, sets the audience up for a lark. Conflicting details give the impression that the film is divorced from time, with the childrenâs clothesâlong and flowing dresses, gaudily ill-fitting suitsâsuggesting holdovers from the 1970s. Even the immaculately put-together mothers and Hawaiian shirt-clad fathers seem like vestiges from a different era. No cellphones are initially glimpsed, and there are no overt pop-cultural references, though other textures place the story in the present day. In other words, thereâs a highly self-conscious, stylized, insulated innocence to the film that inspires distrust, as weâre invited to enjoy the sort of idyll proffered by many teen movies, yet we know weâre being played with. This archness, which isnât without sincerity, challenges the sentimentality that marks many a film and real-life ceremony.
Taormina and co-writer Eric Berger donât offer character development in a traditional sense, instead creating a free-floating and distinctly Altmanesque tapestry as they move among dozens of characters. The elegance and control of Ham on Ryeâs aesthetic is breathtaking, especially considering the filmâs shoestring production. Cinematographer Carson Lund bathes the storyâs neighborhood settings in a pastel light that again evokes the â70sâor, at least, modern pop cultureâs impression of the decade. And the camera lingers on details that indicate the ecstasies and miseries lingering underneath this suburban mirage, such as a shot of trash in a yard that suggests the aftermath of either indifference or violence, or of a postcard sent to a girl from her sister in college, which is written in an unnaturally, over-compensatingly proclamatory style that implies desperation while serving as a mockery of the girlsâ simplified visions of future adulthood. Such details point to the influence of many titans of the cinema, among them Brian De Palma, Peter Weir, and David Lynch.
The film comprises a string of melancholic dead ends. A group of boys talk of the importance of âporking,â setting up a familiar âtrying to get laidâ scenario that never materializes. Later, they see another group of boys who resemble doppelgangers, and each gang puffs their bodies up, mocking the other, priming us for a fight that doesnât occur, as the second gang jumps a chain link fence, never to be seen again. Elsewhere, a group of men, visually coded as old-school stoner types, drive around ready to raise hell, which also doesnât come to pass. These half-formed anecdotes, and there are many more of them, come to resemble fissures in memory. We might be seeing the fuzzy, semi-sanitized, pop-mythos-addled recollections of the adult versions of these characters as they drink away their disappointments in a bar.
Once weâre sufficiently acclimated to Ham on Ryeâs foreboding, wistful atmosphere, Taormina springs a poignant and satirical surprise. The children arenât making their way toward a formal event like the traditional prom, but a ceremonial dance at a deli, in which they eat sandwiches together before forming boys- and girls-only lines so as to evaluate one another and couple. The strangeness of this arrangement, like the general timelessness of the setting, underscores the arbitrary ornateness of real ceremoniesâprom, homecoming, graduationâthat insidiously serve the purpose of conditioning us to become well-behaved cogs in the social machine, like all the disappointed parents who lurk in the periphery of the film.
Underneath Ham on Ryeâs mystery and grandeur, then, is a theme thatâs traditional to teen movies: childrenâs fear of selling out like their parents. Which isnât to say that Taormina indulges snideness, as he invests this dance with an intense visual splendor that embodies the naĂŻve, untapped passion, laced with terror, that comes with inoculation into adult rituals. This sequence has the daring rhapsody of the prolonged prom sequence in De Palmaâs Carrie.
Ham on Ryeâs second half is informed with a kind of survivorâs guilt thatâs also reminiscent of Carrie. Haley (Haley Bodell), the closest the film has to a protagonist, flees the deli ceremony, casting herself off as Amy Irvingâs character was cast off in Carrie. After her friends seem to vanish transcendently into thin air after the dance, Haley is left behind with her despondent family, perhaps stranded in childhood or simply this town, and the film abruptly shifts atmospheres. The pastels are traded in for industrial nighttime hues, and cellphones and other modern bric-a-brac are suddenly visible, while the posh suburban neighborhoods, with their kids who can afford to go to dances that whisk them off to neverland, are traded in for strip malls with disaffected teens and working-class parents whoâre pushed by their disadvantaged children to the brink of insanity. Ham on Rye first shows us a dream, with its intimations of chaos, before then showing us only chaos, with its lingering echoes of the vanished dream.
Cast: Haley Bodell, Audrey Boos, Gabriella Herrera, Adam Torres, Luke Darga, Sam Hernandez, Blake Borders, Cole Devine, Timothy Taylor, Gregory Falatek, Laura Wernette, Lori Beth Denberg, Danny Tamberelli, Clayton Snyder, Aaron Schwartz Director: Tyler Taormina Screenwriter: Tyler Taormina, Eric Berger Distributor: Factory 25 Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Review: Dating Amber Is a Touching Yarn About Defying Heteronormativity
David Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims.3.5
“This place will kill you.â Thatâs a recurrent refrain in Dating Amber, writer-director David Freyneâs dramedy about two queer teens, Eddie (Fionn O’Shea) and Amber (Lola Petticrew), who pretend to be a couple so that they can make it through high school a little less scathed. Itâs one of those lines that sometimes captures a characterâs plight with such biting precision, and simplicity, that the viewer is caught off guard and the film is left feeling haunted. The place that âwill kill you,â as Amber warns Eddie as well as her herself multiple times in one way or another, is rural Ireland in the 1990s, where divorce is still illegalâan idyllic meadowland plagued by backward prudes and homophobic bullies.
The demands of heterosexuality are lethal to both straights and gays in County Kildare. Amberâs father, for one, took his own life, and ever since then sheâs been charging her classmates to use her familyâs caravan as a place to have sex, so she can save enough money and move to London and work for a punk zine. By contrast, Eddie wallows in sorrow and denial, his gait the grotesque result of him trying to mimic butchness. He plans to do exactly whatâs expected of himâthat is, to join the army and marry a nice girl who will probably just make him sleep on the living room couch like his mother (Sharon Horgan) does to his father (Barry Ward). Amber knows that living oneâs life according to the desires of others will kill you, so her offer to fake-date Eddie so their peers will stop harassing them seems more like an act of solidarity, an attempt to spare Eddie from the violence that she herself can take in stride.
The film is initially hyper-stylized, recalling Jamie Babbitâs But Iâm a Cheerleader. The colorfully coordinated precision of the mise-en-scĂšne and campy over-acting all point toward satire. But thereâs a gravitas to Dating Amber that keeps pricking us little by little until it completely takes over in the film. Our first warning that humor may have been only the sheen of a much more serious cinematic proposition, a cheeky red herring of sorts, comes in a sequence in which Eddie and Amber take the train to Dublin and happen upon a gay bar. Instead of lusting over male bodies or dancing the night away on drugs (that comes later), Eddie is instantly transfixed by a drag queen singing Brenda Leeâs âYou Can Depend on Me.â He approaches her on stage as if, at last, untethered from the world. In a kind of communion, Eddie embraces the drag queen like a lost child re-encountering his mother. She keeps on singing, rocking Eddie as if casting a queer spell, or baptizing the âbaby gay,â as she calls him.
From that scene on, Dating Amber rather seamlessly strips itself of its hyperbolic affectations to reveal a heartbreaking story of emancipation through friendship. Freyne manages to indict the societal expectation of heterosexuality as a traumatizing force while also humanizing its straight victims. A brief scene when Eddieâs doleful mother is, for once, alone at home and puts on a vinyl is particularly wonderful. She looks at her husbandâs framed photograph and smiles, reminding us that while the fantasy of heterosexual domesticity holds many promises, in practice, it can be an exhausting hell. âAnywhere!â Amber tells Eddie when he asks her where he could escape to. And as their own faux love affair begins to crumble, they can at last embrace the queerness and messy feelings for which there is no required language, no blueprints, and as such the opportunity to actually find a place that wonât kill them.
Cast: Fionn OâShea, Lola Petticrew, Sharon Horgan, Barry Ward, Simone Kirby, Evan OâConnor Director: David Freyne Screenwriter: David Freyne Distributor: Samuel Goldwyn Films Running Time: 92 min Rating: NR Year: 2020