Its most amusing moments are in the interplay between the central characters as they adjust to an abruptly shifting reality.
The strengths and pleasures of Tina Gordon Chism’s Little lie neither in its ramshackle, uneven script nor in its familiar high-concept conceit, in which a successful, cold-blooded CEO suddenly awakens to find herself in the body of her formerly insecure, bullied 13-year-old self. No, the film’s most amusing and delightful moments are in the interplay between the central characters as they adjust to an abruptly shifting reality.
As the tightly wound tech mogul Jordan Sanders, Regina Hall isn’t given much room to show off her talents, as Jordan simply exists to either berate her assistant, April (Issa Rae), ruthlessly shoot down all of her employees’ ideas, or repeatedly boot her pesky boy toy (Luke James) out of her penthouse after she’s had her fun with him. Hall does what she can to inject brief glimpses of vulnerability into her one-note, self-aggrandizing bully, but it’s only after a bit of well-timed transformative magic cuts Jordan down to size and the magnetic Marsai Martin steps on screen that Little begins, at least for a time, to find its footing.
Right out the gate, Martin convincingly captures the fortysomething Jordan’s swagger and arrogance. And the young actress’s performance is never more persuasive than in the early scenes when Jordan must capitulate to April, leaning entirely on her kowtowed subordinate as they struggle to find a way to reverse Jordan’s de-aging just as her biggest client, the obnoxiously entitled Connor (Mikey Day), threatens to leave for another firm.
Martin and Rae’s comedic repartee bolsters the film’s attempts at balancing the hotheaded young Jordan navigating the new limitations of her situation with the blossoming of the shy yet ambitious April as she confronts the sudden shift in power dynamics between her and her domineering boss. Regrettably, though, the potential for a tighter, more focused two-hander between Martin and Rae is lost once little Jordan is forced to go back to her old school and face similar bullies as she did when she was 13, and to quite predictable results.
It’s here that Little pivots away from the intriguingly thorny, precarious dynamic established between April and Jordan to instead follow the latter as she gets in touch, literally and figuratively, with her inner child. And while Jordan teams up with a trio of young outcasts and eventually takes on the school bully (Eva Carlton), April is left grinding it out at the office alongside a bland array of co-workers, among them a rather listless love interest (Tone Bell), all the while trying to summon the courage to push one of her pitches.
Where the dilemmas built into the film’s earlier stretches allow Rae and Martin to riff off one another, the tediously plotted scenarios into which their characters are separately thrust trade comic vitality for treacly life lessons. And as the laughs begin to taper off, the seams in the film’s haphazard construction become more apparent. Major events either materialize out of nowhere, such as Jordan and her friends’ carefully choreographed dance routine, or are curiously treated as afterthoughts given their earlier importance, such as April’s office pitch. And throughout so many meaningless incidents that don’t see Rae and Martin paired on screen, it becomes all too clear that the actresses are the best that Little has to offer.
Cast: Regina Hall, Issa Rae, Marsai Martin, Justin Hartley, Tracee Ellis Ross, Tone Bell, Mikey Day, JD McCrary, Tucker Meek, Thalia Tran, Eva Carlton, Luke James, Rachel Dratch Director: Tina Gordon Chism Screenwriter: Tracy Oliver, Tina Gordon Chism Distributor: Universal Pictures Running Time: 109 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019 Buy: Video
Its inquisitiveness gives all the melodramatic incidents more of a charge and a purpose for keeping our attention.
After a terrorist bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art leaves his mother dead, 13-year-old Theo (Oakes Fegley) carries himself like a zombie with a secret, having left the museum with Carel Fabritius’s 17th-century painting The Goldfinch that he had been looking at when the explosion happened. Presumed lost by the world, the painting is now the only thing keeping the stunned, numbed Theo tethered to any semblance of reality.
Streamlined by Peter Straughan from Donna Tartt’s overwrought Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel just enough to make certain developments slightly baffling and a few characters close to redundant, John Crowley’s three-handkerchief film adaptation throws a lot at the viewer, and not all of it makes much sense, except for the painting. Enough of the individual moments pulled by Straughan from the rag-and-bone shop of Tartt’s sprawling mystery narrative make an emotional impact that the story’s structural issues fail to register as much at first.
Much of that is due to Fegley. Theo is taken in after the bombing by the Barbours, the wealthy family of a school friend (Ryan Foust), and his trauma is sharply, simply put across by Fegley with a cautiously calibrated courtesy that clearly signals the screaming loss inside the boy. Save for a framing device where the older Theo (Angels Elgort) melts down in an Amsterdam hotel room, not too much happens in these early stretches. As Theo tries to adjust to a life without family, the people around him simply try to make sense of this quietly wounded kid: Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman, somehow both flinty and warm), who beams at his gentlemanly ways; Pippa (Aimee Laurence), the girl who had been standing next to Theo when the bomb went off and who he’s probably in love with; and Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), the Greenwich Village antiques dealer who for laughably implausible reasons makes Theo his ward.
Soon the story relocates Theo to Las Vegas, where he’s left to his fate at the hands of his long-absent alcoholic gambler of a father, Larry (Luke Wilson), and his spray-tanned girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson). The sharp transition from New York’s gleaming warmth—shot by Roger Deakins in rich, reassuring tones—to the foreclosed ghost subdivision on the edge of a desert gives the narrative a kick it was missing in the all-too-cozily rendered confines of the Village and Central Park East. (When one of the Barbours wonders whether Theo, once in Las Vegas, will attend “one of those schools you read about” with “gangs and metal detectors,” it’s unclear whether the line’s class myopia is intentional or not.) Further amplifying things is the introduction of Boris (Finn Wolfhard), a Ukrainian teen who’s led a gypsy lifestyle with his businessman father and finds in Theo a fellow lost and self-destructively reckless soul.
Eventually, Theo finds his way back to New York, where he desperately works to reconstruct some idealized version of his pre-bombing existence. But by the time the story comes back to young adult Theo, his pursuit of that cossetted Manhattan life has resulted in the accrual of enough transgressions and several more sedimentary layers of guilt that his bottoming-out in Amsterdam starts to make more sense. On an emotional level, that is. The plot here is more of a Dickensian litany of plot twists, arbitrary cruelties, excessive generosities, and coincidences tied together somewhat roughly by the weighty symbolic resonance of the painting.
Do things contain meaning? After a catastrophe like that which shredded Theo’s life, can something like a centuries-old painting of a bird be worthy of notice? Enumerated to Theo in a hushed, agonized soliloquy by a near-shattered Hobie, that query is as close to a point as The Goldfinch gets, and even if Tartt might just be echoing Tom Stoppard’s time-and-memory play Arcadia (“We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind”), it’s one that stays with you. The film doesn’t come close to answering that question, rather losing its way in a disappointingly absurd and off-tone hijinks in the last 15 minutes. But just the asking of it helps give all this melodramatic clamor more of a charge and a purpose for keeping our attention.
Cast: Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, Ashleigh Cummings, Aneurin Barnard, Finn Wolfhard, Oakes Fegley, Luke Wilson, Denis O’Hare, Willa Fitzgerald, Ryan Foust, Aimee Laurence Director: John Crowley Screenwriter: Peter Straughan Distributor: Warner Bros. Running Time: 149 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Based on his 2013 short film Palimpsest, Michael Tyburski’s The Sound of Silence is built around a fascinating and eerie premise. Peter Lucian (Peter Sarsgaard) is a “home tuner” who visits people’s residences with tuning forks and specialized recorders and headphones, determining the intricate symphonies of sound spectrums governing the places. Early in the film, Peter declares an old radiator to be a “B flat” and wraps a copper ring around a portion of it, changing its sonic profile and altering the aural dimension of the residence, improving the inhabitant’s ongoing mood in the process.
These opening sequences are the film’s most compelling, as Tyburski emphasizes convincing and intricate details, savoring the pleasure that a professional derives from his work. Peter appears to have found the ultimate introvert’s job, as he must enter a meditative state of quietness, examining other people’s worlds so as to keep his own personal life on ice. Most haunting, however, is the notion of sound as a controlling force—as an everyday god that, as Peter has it, denies humankind free will. In the film, people’s lives are dramatically altered by the smallest adjustments, such as the changing of kitchen appliances.
At times, The Sound of Silence suggests a certain strain of paranoid thriller about men who concoct elaborate conspiracies in order to explain their own alienation from society, such as Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi. In the film’s most hypnotic sequences, Tyburski shows Coppola and Aronofsky’s flair for rendering the mechanics of thought process suspenseful. Peter’s job resembles exorcism in certain fashions, and Tyburski encourages the audience to parse the film’s soundtrack, listening for things that are “off.” Like Coppola and Aronofsky, Tyburski viscerally links the protagonist’s job to his mental state, suggesting that the former has become an attempt to ease the imperilment of the latter. Peter is another control freak who needs to believe that we are all puppets.
In the tradition of solitary people all over, Peter takes perverse comfort in the idea that his estrangement is fated, and Tyburski telegraphs Peter’s yearning by offering juicy illustrations of the man’s fanatical efficiency. Intolerant of imprecision and sloppiness (his voicemail greeting is the film’s comic highlight), Peter speaks to people only professionally, and has utilized his knowledge of sound to wall himself off from the chaotic vitality of New York City. Peter’s home, a monument to instruments of the analogue era, is quite reminiscent of the protagonist’s home and working area in The Conversation, while his idea of a date is a cup of hot water with someone in a cavernous hall to the strains of an ancient piano. These details complement Peter’s painstaking professional process, and Sarsgaard, who has a phenomenal ability to communicate thought on screen, is an ideal actor to lead us into this hermetic world.
Unlike Coppola and Aronofsky, though, Tyburski isn’t willing to follow his hero down a rabbit hole of madness. The house-tuning concept gradually takes a backseat to a formula, in which Peter develops a potentially romantic relationship with a client, Ellen (Rashida Jones), who wears her isolation even more pointedly on her sleeve than Peter himself. The Sound of Silence has one great moment in its second half, in which Peter finally loses control of his measured demeanor after an idol tells him that his theories are nonsense, but the redemptive template otherwise slows the film down, dampening its initial mysteries with moralizing.
Yet Tyburski doesn’t ease up on his arthouse mood even as he succumbs to clichés, as the film continues to be formally composed of silences, ringing, and static tension, with almost supernaturally earthy cinematography and somewhat opaque plotting. This combination represents a worst of both worlds: The Sound of Silence loses the initial tension of its artiness, while refusing to entirely sell its blossoming sentimentality. A wonderful high concept is compromised for another story of lonely people learning to connect, but Peter is more interesting, and resonant, when he’s estranged from everything around him.
Cast: Peter Sarsgaard, Rashida Jones, Tony Revolori, Austin Pendleton, Bruce Altman, Tina Benko, Alex Karpovsky, Adit Dileep Director: Michael Tyburski Screenwriter: Ben Nabors, Michael Tyburski Distributor: IFC Films Running Time: 85 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
The film is a vivid depiction of how a confrontation with the unknown can so easily shatter the fragile bonds that hold us together.
Richard Stanley’s Color Out of Space, the filmmaker’s first narrative feature since being fired from 1996’s The Island of Dr. Moreau, is a mostly faithful retelling of H.P. Lovecraft’s story of the same name. The film’s biggest diversion from the source material outside of the modern-day setting is the way it tonally complicates Lovecraft’s oblique sense of dread with a streak of black comedy. Surprisingly, the comedic elements only deepen the story’s overwhelming despair as the film traces the effects of a meteorite containing some ineffable alien presence that crashes into a family’s rural farm.
Much of this owes to Nicolas Cage as Nathan, the patriarch of the Gardener family. Not unlike Jack Nicholson in The Shining, Cage takes a character originally conceived as a normal man gradually descending into madness and portrays him as someone whose madness is already there, barely restrained and ready to explode at the slightest spark. Which isn’t to say that Nathan exudes violence. At first, he suggests an extreme eccentric, pointedly living away from nearby townspeople and buying a herd of alpacas to raise as the “animal of the future.” Nathan can also be charming and loving, especially in early scenes with his family. In a scene that softly acknowledges his wife Theresa’s (Joely Richardson) mastectomy, he wryly but lovingly soothes her fears about having sex by saying that he was always a leg man anyway.
Then one night, after a bright fuchsia light fills the sky and a meteorite crashes into the front yard of the family’s farmstead, more than just Nathan’s eccentricity begins to distort. Stanley parcels out the effects of the crash with great precision, noting the growth of strange flowers and the static that plagues the family’s television and phones. The Gardeners, too, begin to exhibit strange behavior, as when Nathan and Theresa’s young son, Jack (Julian Hilliard), stares at a well and says he’s playing with his “friend,” whistling at the well and being met by a high-pitched whistle in response. And Theresa at one point becomes hypnotized while chopping vegetables, lopping off the tips of two fingers without batting an eye.
The transformations in the film, so faithful to those in Lovecraft’s iconic short story, largely call attention to just how much “Color Out of Space” has profoundly influenced cinema. The rapidly terraforming land around the farmstead, which blossoms elaborate and colorful plants that defy classification, recalls the genetic mutations of Alex Garland’s adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation, while the film’s second half leans into a monstrous spectacle of gene-splicing horror, with creatures collapsing into bloody and fused forms, can seem more like a nod to The Thing than a reminder of where John Carpenter got his ideas from.
Color Out of Space distinguishes itself from other films to directly and indirectly tackle Lovecraft’s story with sound mixing that, by collapsing distinct sound effects into a massive field of blended noises, excellently captures the alien’s altering of the DNA of flora and fauna. Late in the film, the hideousness of one show of body horror is hammered home as much through the mixing of moans of pain and incomprehension on the soundtrack as it is through the sight of a mound of melted, bubbling flesh that used to be a human being. And Colin Stetson’s score awesomely accents the horror of the story throughout. Stetson specializes in crafting music out of looping sounds that he complicates and slowly redirects, and the warping loops of his synthesized howls and saxophone drones epitomize Color Out of Space’s grasp of introducing small variations that spiral into chaotic new directions.
Impressively, the film even manages to plot a logical through line for Cage’s performance, which explodes in unpredictable directions as Nathan’s sanity increasingly deteriorates, with the actor’s most manic tics, such as his jerking motions and high-pitched whine, feeling as if they’ve been piped in from 1988’s Vampire’s Kiss. Nathan’s whiplash-inducing emotional pivots—such as the way he abruptly screams at his family one moment only to apologize to them the next—can be as funny as they are upsetting, though his non-sequitur outbursts are mostly the former (“Don’t you know how expensive those alpacas were!”). Connecting these jagged emotional fluctuations is the desire of a man to keep his family together, whether as a father hoping to keep his loved ones safe or as a deranged, brainwashed zombie compelled to make that family part of the alien’s grotesque fusion of bodily forms.
Color Out of Space occasionally strains itself in reaching for contemporary resonance with hollow references to climate change and other modern misfortunes. But it never strays far from Lovecraft’s fixation on the limits of what the human mind can endure, positioning Cage as a kind of tribute to the enduring pull of the story, its vivid depiction of how a confrontation with the unknown can so easily shatter the fragile bonds that hold us together.
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Joely Richardson, Madeleine Arthur, Julian Hilliard, Brendan Meyer, Q'orianka Kilcher, Elliot Knight Director: Richard Stanley Screenwriter: Richard Stanley, Scarlett Amaris Distributor: RLJE Films Running Time: 111 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
After a while, all you see are the gears of various sublots turning separately until they mesh together and move in unison.
“It takes a village,” says no one in Downton Abbey. Yet there’s no more accurate a proverb, in a film that doesn’t lack for them, for the effort involved in maintaining the appearance that the British aristocracy wasn’t going the way of the dodo in the early 20th century. But for better and worse, the film reorients this existential crisis, framing it almost exclusively from the point of the view of the domestic servants to the Crawley family, who learn before the opening credits stop rolling that King George V (Simon Jones) and Queen Mary (Geraldine James) will be paying a visit to Downton Abbey. You wouldn’t know by the end of the film that Robert Crawley (Hugh Bonneville), the Earl of Grantham, ever grappled with his diminishing relevance across the six seasons of the ITV series, but you will continue to understand that his servants need Downton Abbey more than he does.
The royal visit is the axis around which the entirety of Michael Engler’s film revolves, setting up a cascading domino effect of setbacks and triumphs, all by and large yielding insights that will seem moth-worn even to the most ardent fans of the series. For one, Mary Crawley (Michelle Dockery), who at one point moves a chair and is gripped anew by the spirit of the proletariat, orchestrates Carson’s (Jim Carter) return to Downton Abbey, thus stepping on the toes of the estate’s new butler, Thomas (Rob James-Collier), whose principled indignation impresses his lord. Nothing more is made of this slight, which mostly exists to make Thomas so idle that he doesn’t hesitate to follow a breadcrumb trail into a secret gathering of homosexuals inside a warehouse in Downton village, sparking a very British scandal that’s capped by wistful talk of the status of men like him in the future.
Screenwriter Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey, has a gift for braiding together subplots that’s both delicate and conspicuous. Princess Mary (Kate Phillips) has a husband, Henry Lascelles (Andrew Havill), who’s every bit as horrible to her as Bertie Pelham (Harry Hadden-Paton) is kind to Edith Crawley (Laura Carmichael), yet both women are frustrated equally by how society says these men should devote themselves to their families. Elsewhere, Thomas Branson (Allen Leech) is trailed by a mysterious man he believes is trying to gauge the Irish socialist’s devotion to the crown, until it’s revealed that the stranger himself wants to take aim at the king. Every scene here feels as if it begins with a grenade being thrown into a room, leaving one to wonder how it will be diffused, and after a while, all you see are the gears of various sublots turning separately until they mesh together and move in unison.
Which is to say, the film is wearying, as if a season’s worth of incident has been packed into two hours. And that impression isn’t alleviated by Ben Smithard’s camera, which quite literally sweeps us up into most scenes, and regardless of their dramatic import. For much of its running time, Downton Abbey feels like an exercise in due diligence, and yet, every time one of those aforementioned grenades is diffused, the story’s center of gravity is increasingly and gratifyingly reoriented to the ground, or, rather, the downstairs: the battle waged by Downton Abbey’s servants against the king and queen’s snippy chef (Philippe Spall) and cruel butler (David Haig) for denying them the privilege—no, the right—to cook for the royals. This battle, sometimes funny and sometimes sad, is above all evocative, as all the bitter interactions between Downton Abbey’s servants and the king and queen’s own give us a complete portrait of how the class-bound nature of British society plays out at Buckingham Palace.
Only one scene in the film takes place within Buckingham Palace’s walls, an exchange that exists to set up the prickly history between lady-in-waiting Maud Bagshaw (Imelda Staunton) and her cousin-in-law, Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith). Their war is predictably strewn with a litany of bon mots, and it resolves itself in graceful, if familiar, fashion—one of many happy endings granted to the people who live, work, and love at Downton Abbey. More satisfying is the culmination of the battle between the two sets of underclasspeople, in a hilarious scene in which Joseph Molesley (Kevin Doyle) makes a public spectacle of himself and the queen casually remarks that she’s used to people acting strange around the royal family.
Here, in this moment, Fellowes springs his most bitter truth: that it’s the underclass, often against their own best interests, who are key to the continued relevance of the royal class. But Fellowes doesn’t see delusion in that per se. He’s too empathetic to make such a judgement, understanding that the familiarity of ritual, from a proper curtsy to a thorough shining of dinnerware, can be palliative, even in a world that isn’t falling apart at the seams.
Director: Michael Engler Screenwriter: Julian Fellowes Distributor: Focus Features Running Time: 122 min Rating: PG Year: 2019
Alejandro Landes’s film depicts amorality with minimal curiosity and a surplus of numbing stylistic verve.
The South American landscape of Alejandro Landes’s Monos is as temperamental as the paramilitary fighters who populate the film. The youngest soldiers are barely adolescent, while the oldest may be in their early 20s. They’re introduced playing soccer blindfolded, training their ears to locate a ball that makes a jangly sound whenever it’s kicked. They live on a lush mountainside that’s fortified with a set of ragged concrete bunkers, which offer them minimal protection from the elements. Dense fog, heavy downpours, and layers of clouds hang over them as they fumble aimlessly toward an elusive goal.
These fighters, who have names like Boom Boom (Sneider Castro), Leidi (Karen Quintero), Lobo (Julián Giraldo), and Rambo (Sofia Buenaventura), serve a group referred to only as the Organization, and they take their orders from a diminutive man named Mensajero (Wilson Salazar), or the Messenger. He arrives early in Monos, whipping this ragtag, androgynous crew into shape with training exercises that directly reference Claire Denis’s Beau Travail. Like much of the film, the montage unfurls in a discordant rhythm, mixing roving, Emmanuel Lubezki-style tracking shots with more frantically edited images of body parts in motion.
Mensajero’s visit is quick, but it’s all business. The group films a proof-of-life video of a prisoner, Sara Watson (Julianne Nicholson), and Mensajero reaffirms the unit’s hierarchy, approves a “partnership” between two members, and leaves them with a milking cow that’s to be returned later to a local rancher aiding their cause. Upon Mensajero’s departure, the days become increasingly unstructured and anarchic as the young fighters party, screw, drink, and fire assault weapons into the sky. Their prisoner, who they refer to as Doctora, occasionally is welcomed into their activities, but she’s clearly desperate for release.
The film’s title translates from Spanish to Monkeys, but it also gestures to the hermetic and isolated world Landes is portraying. Monos pointedly avoids asking how these teens came to bear arms, who they’re working for, why they have a captive, and what they’re meant to do with her. Instead, Landes puts an intense, at times hallucinogenic magnifying glass on the dynamics of this rather undifferentiated group of soldiers and their vacillations between camaraderie and outright rebellion. The film’s immersive qualities amplify its sense of dislocation. It’s never clear whether these soldiers are paid or enslaved, whether they have any investment in whatever cause it is they’re serving, and if their acts of rebellion are petty outbursts or the logical endpoint of some long-running trauma.
In this way, the film recalls Bertrand Bonello’s Nocturama as a study of young terrorists divorced from any clear sense of motive, but Bonello’s film was at once evasive and allusive, housing its inaction in a mecca of consumerist culture. There are intimations of pansexuality among the young soldiers, but this feels part and parcel with Monos’s rather superficial, hedonistic riff on Lord of the Flies. Any sense of conflict in the film is utterly aesthetic, and whatever meaning its heightened atmosphere conjures is almost entirely due to Mica Levi’s score, an even stranger beast than her revelatory work on Jackie and Under the Skin. Levi incorporates the chatter of insects and the soldiers’ birdcalls into her willfully erratic soundtrack, which often begins in choral tones that ascend into abstract chaos.
The film mimics this pattern after a series of mishaps in the mountains, punctuated by a military attack on the Organization’s territory that disrupts what little sense of order remains among the unit. They set up a new camp in the jungle and attempt to go rogue, ignoring radio communiques from Mensajero and chaining their prisoner to a tree under the newly self-appointed leader, Patagrande (Moisés Arias), or Bigfoot. Landes further heightens the film’s sense of abstraction and dislocation in the jungle, emphasizing the inability of the soldiers to keep tabs on one another. This metaphorical descent into the wild is contrasted by plot action that grows increasingly tedious, as the broadly undifferentiated soldiers (only Arias, frightening in his ruthless amorality, leaves much of an impression) waver in their loyalties.
When one soldier strays, discovering an empathetic family willing to offer him a spot in their home, Landes uses a TV broadcast to belatedly afford Monos some real-world socio-political context. The deftness with which a news story about Gummy Bears illustrates a forbidding local economy is striking, but if this scene intends to offer a reason why youths have abandoned their families and morals to submit themselves to a shadowy chain of command, it’s inadequate. Landes’s final shot also attempts to evoke the trauma of endless, pointless war, but it feels particularly glib in the face of a film that otherwise is only concerned with depicting amorality with minimal curiosity and a surplus of numbing stylistic verve.
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Moisés Arias, Sofia Buenaventura, Deiby Rueda, Karen Quintero, Laura Castrillón, Julián Giraldo, Paul Cubides, Sneider Castro, Wilson Salazar, Jorge Román Director: Alejandro Landes, Screenwriter: Alejandro Landes, Alexis Dos Santos Distributor: Neon Running Time: 102 min Rating: R Year: 2019
Larry Fessenden diagnoses the rot of our era through the shifting personalities and power dynamics of solipsistic men.
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).
For much of Depraved, Fessenden’s focal point is essentially the monster’s brain, which starts in the body of a man named Alex (Owen Campbell) before being unceremoniously transplanted to its final container in Adam, whose ghastly scars and stitches betray his unnatural heritage. Aside from vestigial flashes of his former life, Adam is a vessel to be filled with the perspectives of those around him. Fessenden devotes long stretches of the film to that learning process, an enthralling canvas for his usual bag of editing tricks.
As Adam’s brain develops and reconfigures, the screen is covered in green blots, time-lapse constructions, hyperactive movements, montages, and other music video-esque trappings that somehow are never incongruously showy so much as a mesmerizing fit for the material. In Wendigo, such flourishes followed the film’s spiral of supernatural unease, and in Depraved they give Adam’s learning process an odd, hypnotic beauty. Fessenden imposes brain scans and firing synapses over the screen as characters’ voices echo for an effect that compares these parts of the human body to the fingers of tree branches or the forks in a peaceful forest creek. Adam’s thoughts and feelings are natural, even if his existence is not.
His hair grows, his speech patterns diversify, he reads, and we learn what Henry deems important by what he teaches Adam as foundational, or what he doesn’t teach him at all. “Gravity is your friend,” one lesson goes, and then Henry drops a bouncy ball. Adam may not learn how to shake hands until he meets Polidori, but he learns how to play ping pong. In his loneliness, Henry has built himself a buddy, albeit one he may control and whose interests he may dictate. When he teaches Adam about music, he mentions Bach and Beethoven because they’re important, but you sense him skipping to the important stuff, to the music he personally likes. He’s the date who invites you over to tell you about his record collection.
At the museum, Polidori and Adam linger on a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, noting the similarity between the painter’s ear and Adam’s, which is discolored and conspicuously sewn on. But Van Gogh cut off his own ear; no one cut it off for him. So who’s the artist in this relationship? Is it Adam or Henry or Polidori, who supplies the body parts and the money and is named for John William Polidori, the writer who both played a small role in the creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and himself penned “The Vampyre,” one of the first vampire stories? With bad blonde hair and names for strippers including “Melania” and “Stormy,” Fessenden paints him as a Trump-like figure, a talentless bloodsucker.
The comparison is far from graceful. Though Fessenden’s films leave no mistake as to what they’re about, the characters of Depraved feel overly prone to calling out the obvious, ensuring that each name-drop and reference is processed appropriately by the audience. But if, as in the somewhat baggy final 30 minutes, the film’s thematic reach exceeds its grasp, it remains firmly focused on its thesis of Frankenstein as a lens for examining modern society. Throughout Depraved, Fessenden catalogues what personalities and power dynamics have shifted and what hasn’t changed at all. The filmmaker 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.
Cast: David Call, Joshua Leonard, Alex Breaux, Ana Kayne, Maria Dizzia, Chloë Levine, Owen Campbell, Addison Timlin Director: Larry Fessenden Screenwriter: Larry Fessenden Distributor: IFC Midnight Running Time: 114 min
The film’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them.
One major development in mainland China over the last 20 years or so has been an enabling of exposure to more contemporary international cinema. During their time at the Beijing Film Academy, the Chinese filmmakers who emerged in the 1980s—Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, and Tian Zhuangzhuang, among others—had been able to watch prints of films ranging from Taxi Driver to The Tree of Wooden Clogs, but only well after those films were released. And that was still several years before the premiere of Chen’s The Yellow Earth, the film that established the so-called Fifth Generation of filmmakers.
This in itself marked a big change from the time of the Cultural Revolution, when Chinese cinema essentially stalled in its development for a decade. But it wasn’t until around the turn of this century that contemporaneous films could really become an influence on budding filmmakers in China. This is, of course, because of the internet, which, even despite the obstacles created by the censorship system known as the Great Firewall, democratized film viewing in an entirely new way for the communist country. And as those aspiring filmmakers with internet access, like Diao Yinan, grew up and started making their own features, China’s assimilation into a contemporary world cinema has become readily apparent.
Diao’s The Wild Goose Lake is a prime example of this new generation of Chinese films, which not only concern themselves with a sociopolitical context, but also an aesthetic one. The film opens in the textbook register of a neo-noir: pouring rain and neon lights, shadowy figures meeting at a rendezvous point, a man checking his watch, and a woman sauntering into position, whispering, “Hey, got a light?” The man, Zhou Zenong (Hu Ge), had been waiting for his estranged wife, but instead, the mysterious Liu Aiai (Gwei Lun-mei) appears, a sex worker who demands that Zenong prove that he is who he says he is. Then, in an extended flashback beginning two nights earlier, it’s revealed that Zenong is a recently released convict involved with a gang that steals and resells motorbikes. He’s put in charge of a group of men, one of whom runs afoul of another high-ranking mobster. A contest is set up to resolve the matter, but the outcome is rigged, and soon Zenong finds himself the target of a massive manhunt.
What plot there is here is almost entirely devoted to procedural detail: Zenong and the couple of comrades who he brings with him on the run negotiate discreet meet-ups, call in favors with their few remaining friends, and maneuver around a phalanx of cops, led by Liao Fan’s unrelenting police inspector. All the while, Aiai lingers in the periphery, her motivations and intentions keeping us guessing right up until the end. It would be easy to write off all of this as mere scaffolding for a twisty genre exercise, which Diao does deliver on, and exceptionally well: In a rather huge departure from his acclaimed 2014 noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, the long takes and master shots he once favored have been traded for dynamic camera movement, suspense-building close-ups, and top-notch fight choreography. There are also some fantastic set pieces, such as a motorbike race that’s visually highlighted by the streaming trails of headlights, and at least one creative, if wholly ridiculous, kill scene involving an umbrella.
If Diao’s ambitions were limited to crafting a crackerjack genre exercise, that would be just fine. But this film is up to a fair bit more than it might at first seem. Diao joins other contemporary Chinese filmmakers like Vivian Qu (Trap Street) and Xin Yukun (Wrath of Silence) in recognizing that genre movies offer a kind of smokescreen for a form of sociopolitical engagement that the Chinese censors likely wouldn’t otherwise approve. Which is to say, the heightened violence and ugliness of a crime film seems to allow for a kind of depiction of Chinese social life that wouldn’t be acceptable from a “realistic” drama.
Diao takes this all a bit further, however, utilizing the sprawling geography of what’s essentially a chase film to deep-dive into the sordid underbelly of a Chinese society where lawlessness trumps order. The Wild Goose Lake’s masterstroke is that its fugitive antiheroes are framed by an environment that reflects their criminal lives back at them, seemingly no matter where they turn: The beach by the titular lake runs rampant with a humorously untraceable type of prostitution, while a late-night meeting on a factory floor—to determine who will lose their job and who stays, by way of lottery—resembles nothing so much as the gathering of mobsters that Zenong attends at the beginning of the film.
It has to be said that it’s still something of a minor miracle that Wild Goose Lake even made it to festival screens, considering that one of its most emphatic themes is a critical attitude toward ruthless and incompetent Chinese police. In one scene, Zenong’s comrade (Zhang Yicong) is accidentally killed by police fire, after he raises his hands in surrender, and in another, a team of eager cops pose over the body of a man they just gunned down, to take selfies. There’s also a moment where Fan’s police inspector asks who among his squad doesn’t know how to use their guns and, tellingly, most every hand in the room is raised.
This all amounts to an extraordinarily uncommon depiction of police, at least for a film from mainland China—and one can imagine that Chinese authorities were irked that much more by this in the wake of the Hong Kong protests, and Beijing’s fervent support of its local police. (The Wild Goose Lake’s Chinese theatrical release, which was planned for this August, was abruptly canceled, as part of a string of films pulled from theaters and festivals by Chinese authorities throughout this year.) More even then on its strengths as an expertly directed piece of entertainment, Diao’s latest impresses for its scathing, and unexpected, indictment of societal ills—for how the filmmaker recognizes the extent to which the contours of a sordid genre film appropriately express realities of Chinese life.
Cast: Hu Ge, Liao Fan, Gwei Lun-mei, Wan Qian Director: Diao Yinan Screenwriter: Diao Yinan Distributor: Film Movement Running Time: 113 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
Waititi is incapable of dealing with the twin horrors of oppression and indoctrination beyond cheap-seats sentimentality and joke-making.
Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit is the work of a free man. A man, that is, with all the short-term independence that Marvel money and Hollywood blockbuster street cred can buy. This spectacularly wrongheaded “anti-hate satire” (as per the how-the-hell-do-we-market-this-thing ad campaign) is the feature-length equivalent of the “Springtime for Hitler” number from Mel Brooks’s The Producers, sans context and self-awareness. It takes place in a goofball period la-la land of its own creation, with sets as minutely detailed and shots as precisely composed as those in a Wes Anderson fantasia. Indeed, Jojo Rabbit suggests what that dapper hipster auteur might generate if he was to remake Elem Klimov’s hallucinatory, horrifying World War II epic Come and See, and that’s not a compliment.
The film, which Waititi adapted from Christine Leunens’s 2008 novel Caging Skies, begins with actual Nazi propaganda footage scored to a German cover of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Intercut with this choice, such as it is, are the nationalistic squeals and sieg-heiling of 10-year-old Jojo Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis), off to the best weekend ever at a Hitler Youth retreat during the waning days of WWII. The trip doesn’t go as planned, this despite Jojo’s imaginary best friend, Adolf Hitler (Waititi, aiming for the Great Dictator but barely hitting Ace Ventura), cheering him from the sidelines. Jojo gets the title nickname after he fails to kill a cute widdle bunny wabbit in the presence of some odious SS counselors. Then he’s sent home after a hand grenade explodes in close proximity, bruising his legs and scarring his face.
Jojo’s doting mom, Rosie (Scarlett Johansson), is more than happy to have him back under her roof. But the lady’s got a secret: She’s hiding a teenage Jewish girl, Elsa Korr (Thomasin McKenzie), in the walls. Jojo discovers Elsa one day by chance and the two begin an antagonistic, eventually heart-and-mind-opening platonic courtship that’s part Moonrise Kingdom, part The Boy in the Striped Pajamas, and all shamelessly offensive.
There’s certainly a place for stories of war seen from the perspective of children; few are greater than J.G. Ballard’s Empire of the Sun and Steven Spielberg’s radical, and radically under-appreciated, film adaptation. But Waititi proves incapable of dealing with the twin horrors of oppression and indoctrination, of young and old alike, beyond cheap-seats sentimentality and joke-making. So we get such sink-into-your-seat moments as an Allied air bombing used as a backdrop for Jojo and Elsa’s chaste canoodling. Not to mention a below-the-belt gag that posits the vanquishing of fascist oppression as a simple foot-to-groin proposition. Anti-Semitic slurs and stereotypes are also consistently utilized for easy guffaws. The intent may be to debunk these noxious clichés, but the effect is hardly transgressive—more monotonously admonishing in a “c’mon, you know this is wrong” sort of way.
There’s a hint of some genuine real-world unease in an early scene in which Rosie forces Jojo to look at a line of dead Jews hanging from the gallows. “Uck!” the boy says, as if he’d just been forced to eat his vegetables. Something in the way he spits out the word captures a child on a moral precipice, and a much better film than Jojo Rabbit would tease out that tension for all it’s worth, unearthing the dark humor along the way.
Waititi prefers to treat his audience like drooling cretins who need their hands held through every shift in tone, reassured that everything, even in a world off its axis, is going to work out. It doesn’t help that this misguided production is utterly devoid of laughs, though I admit to cracking a desperate smile when the nitwit Nazi played by Sam Rockwell demands that an underling bring him German shepherds, as in the dogs, and is instead delivered shepherds who are German. It’s a flash of punny bliss in what’s otherwise Marvel Presents Mein Kampf.
Cast: Roman Griffin Davis, Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie, Taika Waititi, Scarlett Johansson, Sam Rockwell, Rebel Wilson, Stephen Merchant, Alfie Allen Director: Taika Waititi Screenwriter: Taika Waititi Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures Running Time: 108 min Rating: PG-13 Year: 2019
Federico Veiroj continuously underlines in red ink his protagonist’s cowardness, impulsive greediness, and lust.
Federico Veiroj makes films about professional men at crossroads or dead ends. His latest, The Moneychanger, takes place over two decades, charting the prosperous, morally rotten career of Humberto Brause (Daniel Handler), a prominent money changer for all manner of ne’er-do-wells. The opening voiceover, aping that of a 1990s-era Martin Scorsese crime epic, immediately strikes a Catholic-confessional pose—and that’s not just because the film begins with Jesus’s cleansing of the Temple.
Humberto is penitently self-denigrating from the moment we hear him speak. As the biblical scene unfolds, the money changer reminds us that his trade has been “the root of all evil” since time immemorial, and Humberto, revealed to be speaking from 1970s Uruguay, begins recounting his ignoble path to becoming a successful money changer. Looking back, even he can’t understand why the respectable Señor Schweinsteiger (Luis Machín) took him on as an apprentice in the ‘50s, but he did, and Humberto learned to enjoy all that money can buy, soon making a name for himself throughout the southern cone of South America.
Veiroj emphasizes the petty life beneath Humberto’s lucrative business suit rather than the job of money changing itself. Much is made of gestures like hand-tailoring suits to transport money, but the movement of cash—from client to Humberto to various far-flung locations around the globe—is by and large curtly presented. One transatlantic money-moving trip is compressed into three shots, and the first of many corrupt dealings ends with a quick handoff of a cash-filled briefcase. Significantly, Humberto’s first real transgression occurs with Schweinsteiger’s school-age daughter, Gudrun (Dolores Fonzi), his eventual wife, as Humberto forges her report card for her during their courtship. Deemphasizing the mechanics of money changing undercuts the ostensive sexiness that might derive from Humberto’s white-collar-criminal lifestyle and instead highlights his own nervous state.
After Humberto does a prison stint and makes his proper entry into the world of criminal money changing, The Moneychanger is characterized by a marked shift in tone. Hendler spends much of the first part of the film feeling like an out of place comedian. He’s goofy looking and can make any suit seem shabby even though his performance is fairly straitlaced, if often telegraphing over-eagerness. Later, Humberto is frequently convalescing with stress-related heart disease or traipsing across the politically fractious region to patch up business trouble with his increasingly dangerous clientele, now an assortment of seedy political agents, opposition figures, and businessmen looking to hide excess income.
By this point, the film verges on the farcical, with Humberto engaging in a Force Majeure-esque act of cowardice during a shooting while driving with his wife in Argentina and a rushed scheme to steal from a dead man before he’s interred, among other indiscretions. While these scenarios are somewhat absurd and funny, they feel calculated in their attempts to stress just how pitiful Humberto has become that he has to turn to such pathetic ploys to stay afloat.
It’s apparent that Veiroj disdains no one so much as Humberto, but the film makes vanishingly little of the man’s undoubtedly twisted psyche. Throughout, The Moneychanger maintains a monolithic meanness, skirting even the smallest gesture of sympathy for Humberto and bulldozing him with further proofs of his depravity—that he’s nothing more than a worm. His skeeziness is clear from the early moment where he informs Gudrun of the STD he gave her just before destroying Schweinsteiger’s trusted name, but Veiroj belabors the point. Where another filmmaker might have identify the virtue in the man’s scrappy acumen, Veiroj seeks further ways to point out that Humberto is cowardly, impulsively greedy, and lustful, despite his successes, continuously underlining in red ink his particular corruption.
In stark contrast to Humberto’s gratingly flat characterization, Veiroj expresses his protagonist’s suffocating work environment in neatly calibrated compositions. In Veiroj’s 2018 film Belmonte, the eponymous painter was often shot in impasto lighting, his airy apartment covered with paintings of agonized, naked men, at times enclosing him in them completely. The Moneychanger has a similarly claustrophobic sense of framing, with Veiroj often emphasizing the edges of an interior space or closing off activity by shooting it through windows and door frames, not to mention a literal bank vault intimating an impending death. The film’s prevailing use of deep blues and gray undertones suggests a queasy depth to Humberto’s offices and his entrapment in these environs. His first heart attack happens right after a boat trip while he’s having sex on a beach, with the horizon is wide in the background.
Humberto’s worst punishment is ultimately the powerlessness his money brings. Prosperity makes him cruddy and pathetic. For all his wealth—yachts, nice clothes, a large home—he spends much of the film sweaty, graying, fretting over secret police or people coming to collect, and a marriage only held together by material comfort. The Moneychanger is in some respects the story of Humberto’s midlife crisis, but it’s more so one about his end. Having pigeonholed himself into a lifetime of dangerous and unpredictable business partners, he’s now stuck. At the film’s conclusion, narrative and personal development are precluded, but so is tragedy. The money will come, life will never get better, or much worse. Humberto’s fate is set: a wife, a kid, a yard, and armed guards to keep it all afloat.
Cast: Daniel Hendler, Dolores Fonzi, Benjamín Vicuña, Germán de Silva, Luis Machín Director: Federico Veiroj Screenwriter: Arauco Hernández Holz, Martín Mauregui, Federico Veiroj Running Time: 97 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
In the film, the literal union of bodies is the only logical means of conveying the reestablishment of emotional bonds.
Pablo Larraín’s Ema opens on the purple haze of pre-dawn, the idyllic morning stillness broken by a streetlight that’s been set aflame. Nearby, a woman stands stoically while holding a flamethrower, staring at a bleary stretch of cityscape in Santiago as the sun begins to rise. As far as introductions go, Ema (Mariana Di Girolamo) makes an immediate impression: With bleached slicked-back hair like Draco Malfoy, she projects a punkish antisocialness, to the point that it seems like she could have spray-painted the ultraviolet and neon-green hues of the film’s color palette onto the frame. A dancer by trade, she regularly rehearses in lofts with a troupe of friends or twirls around town to the confusion and discomfort of others. She suggests a rupture, a glitch in the system of propriety, moving in blunt, aggressive ways that clash with the often-sedate settings in which she finds herself.
Ema’s personality matches her image. Her conversational style is acidic, particularly with her estranged choreographer husband, Gastón (Gael García Bernal), with whom she’s always cooking up a feast of invective. Both relentlessly taunt the other, Ema over his infertility, Gastón over her splintering mental health. Both take other sexual partners and flaunt their infidelities to each other, and much of the film pits Ema’s brutal, loud confrontations against Gastón’s cold passive-aggressiveness, and the only thing more unsettling about their caustic romance is how much the tethers that still connect them depend on this mutual cruelty.
The source of their tension is soon made clear: Wanting children, they adopted a boy, Polo (Cristián Suárez), whose behavior—setting fire to their home, stuffing a cat in a freezer—forced them to give him up. This rejection reverberates through Larraín’s film, like the aftershocks of a colossal earthquake, not merely unbalancing the couple but turning others against them. The teachers at the school where Ema works during the day—and where Polo attended classes—openly express their revulsion in a staff meeting about what to tell Polo’s classmates. Elsewhere, Ema’s friends in her dance troupe air their hostile feelings toward Gastón for how much of the responsibility for Polo’s abandonment he assigns to her.
Bernal, restrained in both his words and how he holds his body, imbues Gastón with an imperiousness that points to the man’s attempts to mask his guilt behind a stone face. Di Girolamo, meanwhile, is all movement. Even in close-up, the actress captures the perpetual jitteriness of her character’s being. For Ema, dancing becomes an outlet for her contradictory feelings of defiance and grief. The film’s music, both diegetic and extratextual, is by experimental electronic composer Nicolas Jaar, whose soundtrack combines ambient longueurs with brittle, frantic footwork—a sound that juts in and out of rhythm and force on skeletal beats and warm tone pulses. The music perfectly fits Ema’s own underground style of dance, a manifestation of a human uncontrollably eating herself from the inside out.
In that sense, Ema marks a fascinating inversion of Larraín’s prior film, Jackie, which concerned the pressures of having to filter one’s all-too-real grief through performative displays of propriety. Natalie Portman’s Jackie Kennedy, shell-shocked and robbed of her husband, lets the demands of office, even one as ceremonial and condescending as that of the first lady, dictate her behavior even in private. But Ema’s focus is on how mourning is expunged through chaos of words and flailing limbs, a movement that embodies a boundless sense of sexual wanderlust. As much as Ema and Gastón bicker, one is left to wonder just how much worse things would be for them if they didn’t act out against each other. Perhaps their guilt would fester and their mutual recrimination would boil over and erupt like a grease fire.
It would be all too easy for Ema to pass judgment on its protagonists, whether over their reflexive rejection of parenthood in the face of its hardships, their combative relationship, or their sexual promiscuity, but Larraín is too interested in the ambiguity of the characters’ physical expressions of their inner selves to condemn anyone. Indeed, a final act in which both Ema and Gastón lose themselves in sexual escapades is remarkable for how it ducks the usual depictions of hedonism as a sign of madness and loss of self, instead presenting their experimentation as affirmational and a cathartic reassertion of identity. In Ema, the literal union of bodies is the only logical means of sustaining emotional ties.
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Cast: Mariana Di Girolamo, Gael García Bernal, Paola Giannini, Santiago Cabrera, Giannina Fruttero Director: Pablo Larraín Screenwriter: Guillermo Calderón, Alejandro Moreno Running Time: 102 min Rating: NR Year: 2019
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